Kindling the Fire

Last Sunday, in the midst of a sleep-in/no-alarm kind of vacation, my dad dragged my wife and I to early church. That meant falling out of bed by 7 and leaving the house by 8:15. Not my idea of a relaxed schedule, to be sure. On the drive to church and all through the service, I found myself in a fog and close to nodding off (the meh sermon didn’t help). Even at brunch afterwards – stoked with a double-dose of mimosas – I couldn’t seem to shake the cobwebs. It wasn’t until much later in the day I realized something significant went missing from my daily routine. I hadn’t had my morning coffee.

Morning coffee is more a habit than an addiction for me.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t so long ago I occasionally substituted juice or water, and the day proceeded as normal.  Sunday’s drowsiness made me pause.  Maybe the impact of caffeine is more significant as you age.  Maybe drinking a hundred cups (or more) in a hundred days creates a dependency.  As they say, caffeine is “the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug”.

While I debate the impact of no caffeine today, I can absolutely attest to the impact of lots of caffeine, with two examples of inconvenience.  For me, caffeine sends a loud-and-clear, pulsing, Times-Square-sized announcement to my bladder saying, “IT’S TIME TO PEE.”  Not in fifteen minutes.  Not in fifteen seconds.  Now; as in – get up and go NOW.  I better have my path to the bathroom mapped out, and that door better be open.  It’s like clockwork biology, forty-five minutes after that first coffee sip.  Remarkably, the experts still question whether caffeine is a diuretic AND they wonder whether the amount of liquid expelled is equivalent to the amount consumed.  I emphatically answer “yes” and “MORE”.  With all the expelling, it’s a wonder my body doesn’t dry out and disintegrate.  No matter; it’s a small price to pay for my daily drug.

Here’s the second impact of caffeine.  Beware the cup of coffee (or any choice from Starbucks) after three in the afternoon.  Let that late-day caffeine hit take hold and you’re in for a long night.  I can very dependably fall asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow except when my coffee intake is late-day (and on that note, why is upscale after-dinner restaurant coffee so good?).  I toss and turn like laundry in the wash cycle, staring at the ceiling and ruing my beverage mistake.  Then I stare at the bedside clock.  What a pretty clock it is.  Such colorful numbers.  It’s fun to watch the numbers change every minute.  Every hour.

Let’s review.  Assuming I plan my bathroom trips and lay off the coffee by mid-day, I can safely embrace my caffeine habit.  And if “habit” concerns me at all – its synonyms include “addiction” after all – here’s some good news.  Four cups a day is ideal for heart health, according to recent research by the Germans (my new favorite people).  Not up to four cups, but exactly four cups, netting you about 300 mg of caffeine.  Four cups is also the equivalent of a Starbucks “Venti” (the Nitro cold brew somehow packs in 469 mg of caffeine) but I steer clear of the big cups.  Wouldn’t want to get “addicted”.

We’ve only been talking about coffee here, but thankfully caffeine is found in only a handful of other foods and drinks.  What starts as a naturally-occurring compound in plants finds its way to teas, cocoa, cola soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter meds (i.e. cough syrup).  The only one I touch is cocoa (my chocolate habit justifies its own blog post).  So, unless I exceed my daily two-square ration of a Lindt 70% Cocoa Excellence Bar, my caffeine intake is all about coffee.

If you count milligrams the way you count calories, know that 300 of caffeine is the threshold to avoid anxiety and panic attacks.  A warning sign might as well pop up after 300 saying, “STOP!  Proceed with caution”.  It’s like there’s this sweet spot with coffee – an oasis between falling asleep in church and earning the jitters – that kindles my fire.  Gives me justification to start every day with a cup of coffee.  Or four.

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Which Came First?

When my son wrapped up his undergraduate college years, he gradually reduced the stock in his refrigerator to just about nothing.  Living on a shoestring budget, he wasn’t about to purchase food he didn’t need after graduation.  I’ll never forget the phone call one of those last couple of nights.  He told us – rather proudly – he’d made a meal with two eggs… and a can of processed chicken.  A “chicken scramble” if you will.  To which I replied, “ick“.  If we’d been on FaceTime he’d have seen my face turn a lovely shade of green.

Some foods were just not intended to be consumed in the same bite.  I can’t think of a better example than chicken and eggs.  All chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens, so why on earth would we eat them together?  Can we skip the biology class and agree – at least by one definition – chickens and eggs are essentially the same “thing”?  And really; how often have you found them side-by-side on your breakfast plate?  Hopefully never.

The memory of my son’s kitchen creation locked itself away in my brain until recently, when Starbucks decided to meddle with their sous vide egg bites menu.  Not content to offer just “Egg White & Pepper” and “Bacon & Gruyere”, Starbucks now offers “Chicken Chorizo Tortilla”, described as “perfectly cooked, cage-free sous vide egg bites, including chicken chorizo, and…” and… and… and I stopped reading right there.  I couldn’t get past eggs and chicken in the same offering, gag reflex included.  I’m not sure I’ll order any egg bites anymore.

To lend credence to my chicken-OR – not chicken-AND – claim, I turned to one of the experts in the field: fast-food icon Chick-Fil-A.  CFA offers an extensive breakfast menu (Starbucks does not) so I figured, a restaurant built entirely on chicken would never offer eggs mixed up with chicken.  Wrong-o.  To my disbelief (and horror), two entrees loom large on CFA’s breakfast menu where you can get plenty of both.  Choose from the Egg White Grill: a breakfast portion of grilled chicken stacked with freshly cooked egg whites on an English muffin; or the Chicken, Egg, and Cheese bagel: a boneless breast of chicken along with a folded egg and American cheese.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?

I’m not sure who said it, but some would assert “the chicken is merely the egg’s way of reproducing itself”. (The same applies to the caterpillar’s “use” of the butterfly.)  I like that, evil as it sounds.  Kind of devalues the chicken, but also kind of proclaims: the egg came first.  And what about that quandary, “which came first”?  There’s not much to discuss if you really think about it.  Make the simple choice – science or religion.  Science votes for the egg, laid by something that wasn’t quite a chicken (but evolved into one once the egg hatched).  Religion votes for the chicken, created by a higher power in those first six days.

Maybe chicken + eggs is the greatest thing never eaten and I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I suppose I could ease into the idea one entree at a time.  Start with corned-beef hash… with fried eggs.  Move to full-on steak… and eggs.  Swallow hard over chicken… and waffles (eggs in the batter).  Then, at long last, order that new sous vide egg bite from Starbucks.  Yeah right, that’ll happen… as soon as we all agree on “which came first”.

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Behind Bars

Every now and then I crave a Kellogg’s Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tart. You can debate the matter and say the fruit Tarts are better – Strawberry, Cherry, and Blueberry – and I’ll give you those, but I stand by my boring-looking Brown Sugar Cinnamon. Maybe that’s because I consumed hundreds of them as a kid, piping hot from the toaster.

Somehow Pop Tarts eluded the otherwise healthy content of my mom’s pantry.  You’d walk in to dozens of those little red boxes of raisins, a pretty good assortment of nuts (which were more meant for recipes than snacking), and the occasional graham cracker.  The fruit and veggie drawers in the frig were loaded and there was always a gallon of milk on hand.  Yet there they were, in foil-wrapped packages of two: Kellogg’s Pop Tarts.  I wish I could see the ingredients list from the 1970’s versions versus those of today’s Tarts.  Surely the former leaned more towards “real food” and less towards chemicals, or my mom would’ve never gone for them.

Pop Tarts now come in twenty-seven varieties, which by any standard is ridiculous. Who wouldn’t be happy with the four I already mentioned? (Okay, let’s add Frosted Chocolate Fudge and call it good).  Do we really need options like “Wildlicious Wild! Cherry”, or “Confetti Cupcake”? Apparently so, because that’s where our demand for choices has taken us. The new approach to snacks: invent one, sell enough to get them into everyday conversation, then evolve to twenty-seven varieties.  Have you seen your options with Oreo’s these days?  I rest my case.

The other day I traveled down the cereal aisle of our grocery store for the first time in a long time (we have house guests). I was shocked to discover the “healthy cereal” section is just as big as the space reserved for regular cereals. Even more interesting, the overhead signs on the aisle first announce “Cereals”, followed by “Granola” a little further down, followed by “Diet and Fitness” a little further than that.  The entire aisle feels like the same kind of food, only you start with boxes, morph to bags, and end up with little bars.  I’d love to know the combined total grams of protein in the products in the “Diet and Fitness” section.  Gotta be ten thousand or more.

Fun facts: Americans now choose from over 400 brands of “healthy” bars, in 4,000 varieties.  At $6 billion in 2012, the healthy bar market was only 17% as big as that of savory snacks ($34 billion) but growing in a hurry.  American children consume almost 500 calories a day in snacks.  The routine starts when we’re young.

Snack bars seem to be almost-entirely carbs or almost-entirely protein. I won’t comment on the first variety because I don’t eat them (I’ve moved on from Pop Tarts), and I don’t even see the carb variety because our store puts them over in the cookie aisle. But protein bars are a challenging enough decision. For starters, are protein bars a “snack” or a “meal”? Many are advertised as “meal-replacements”. Others look small enough to be snacks. Even the ever-present “Nutrition Facts” label doesn’t really lend a hand, except to confirm you’re taking in more calories and sugar than you’d hoped.

I belong to Lifetime Fitness here In Colorado, a gym which stresses “healthy lifestyle” in everything they offer, whether personal training sessions, workout classes, spa treatments, or a cafeteria full of healthy choices. The mantra I hear like a broken record: “carb-up” at least an hour before the workout; “protein-up” within 45 minutes after. I’m sure some would dispute that approach, but regardless, it suggests a “snack” before AND after a workout.  And as I stand in “Diet and Fitness”, I ask myself, “Is that snack half of a “meal-replacement” bar?  Two or three of the “fun-size”?  Scrap the whole aisle and go with fruit and cheese instead?”

For my money, snack bars before and/or after a workout neither benefit the short run nor ease the long run. It’s kind of like my daily multi-vitamins: no clue whether they help me either (but I still take them). This much I know: I need to have a somewhat full stomach before I work out. On that note, maybe I’ll just skip the “Diet and Fitness” aisle from now on and go back to Pop Tarts.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “Our Misplaced Mania for ‘Healthy’ Snacks”.

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Sneakin’ Around

Six years ago, my wife and I visited Ireland for our 25th wedding anniversary. I remember the locals having this uncanny ability to figure out we were Americans, even before we uttered a word. They’d start with, “So where ya from in the States, the both of ya?”, or “What’s the weather like in America now?”, or “Traveled across the pond, did’ja?” It wasn’t until several years later I realized our feet had given us away. Our footwear – bright sneakers with white laces – effectively shouted, “Hello world! We’re from America!” We might have been the only rubber-soled couple in all of Dublin.

Funny people, those Europeans. They wear gym shoes when they’re going to the gym; running shoes when they’re going for a run. That’s about it. We Americans on the other hand (er, other foot), have a decades-long love affair with our “tennis shoes”. We have entire stores dedicated to the soft-soled shoe – Foot Locker, for example – though you’re more likely to find synthetics instead of rubber these days. Walk into a Foot Locker and say, “I need a good walking shoe”, and the salesperson will direct you to every single pair in the store. Americans and their gym shoes: where fashion trumps function.

“Gym shoes” is an awkward, dated description of America’s casual footwear, but we’ve yet to come up with a better name. Once upon a time we called them “tennis shoes”, but today that ask gets you a specialty shoe (for tennis, of course). As kids we wore “Keds”, “Converse” and “Vans”, because they were practical and cheap. 95% of my childhood plodded along in pairs of Keds (with the other 5% in bare feet, or the single pair of dress shoes my parents insisted for church). Today, Keds, Converse, and Vans have made a furious comeback, albeit as a pricey fashion statement.

More recently, Americans claim to be wearing “running shoes”, but how many of us run, really? Maybe we should side with the Brits and wear “trainers” instead. At least we could fib about being “in training”.

The Euros may be quick to judge footwear but trust me; that’s not all they’re looking at. American tourists give themselves away with a host of other fashion statements. If you’re partial to baseball caps, flip-flop sandals, or “athletic shorts” (another item demanding a name change), you’re an American. Speaking of shorts, any shorts in Europe labels you an American. Shorts are “children’s clothing” over there. Care to repack that suitcase? While you’re doing so, white “athletic socks” are a no-no. Euros match their socks to their pants (meaning skip the white pants too). Finally, leave the untucked, oversized, logo’d t-shirts in the drawer. Euro’s aren’t interested in poorly-fitting walking advertisements.

I may be guilty of several items on the “American Tourister” list, but I simply can’t give up my gym shoes. They’re too comfortable and practical, and they’ve become a lot more stylish than the Keds of old. That’s not to say I don’t feel self-conscious wearing them. A good friend – the author of the entertaining blog Brilliant Viewpoint – always insisted her husband wear “nice” shoes, no matter the occasion. Considering her Italian background (and his German), it makes a lot more sense now.

For the record, the American airport is a great place to catalogue footwear. On a recent visit, the traveler shoe pie was split into equal slices (whether males or females): gym shoes, sandals, and dark-soled. heeled, business-casuals. The irony of this airport visit – my wife and I were picking up two teenage visitors from Germany; students staying with us for awhile. As they walked out of the Customs area, my eyes dropped to their feet. What were they wearing? Gym shoes – both of them. Apparently there’s more to America’s global influence than fast food.

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Cause for Alarms

A headline in this morning’s news feed announced , “Flaming Condoms are the Newest Threat to Southern Israel!” Just wanted you to be aware.

Now that I have your attention, let’s turn to a timelier topic. Big Ben, the iconic clock and tower at the north end of London’s Palace of Westminster, has been silent for almost a year now. In case you missed the news, Ben’s Great Bell and Quarter Chimes no longer toll – for another three years in fact – while much-needed repairs are made to the clock mechanics behind his massive face. At least the damage was simply wear-and-tear, and not the result of flaming condoms.

For Londoners, I have to believe the muting of Big Ben took some getting used to. Imagine, heard on miles of city streets, the Great Bell bonging every hour on the hour, and the Quarter Chimes playing every fifteen minutes (a stuck-in-your-head repeating melody of twenty notes). Now take all that away; replaced by uncomfortable silence. I’m sure city-dwellers subconsciously depended on Ben to remind them they had, say, thirty minutes to get to the office, or fifteen minutes left in the lunch hour, or no minutes before church (better start running). How will these people cope for the next three years?

In the absence of Ben, Londoners surely turn to alarm clocks more than they used to.  Not comfortable relying on their own senses (or the sun’s position in the sky), the English probably carry “Baby Ben’s” if you will – whether mobile phones or other portable devices.  I expect the additional chorus of beeps and chimes and other musical bites make a ride on the Tube even more enjoyable, as you’re left to wonder whether your neighbor’s getting a phone call or simply late for an appointment.

Alarms have come a long way since the basic digital LED box-clocks of old.  I wish those old bedside Ben’s were gone forever, but a visit to any Walmart or Radio Shack proves they’re more prevalent than ever.  My wife used to own one of the more potent models – with an enhhh…enhhh…ENHHH screech capable of levitating me out of a deep sleep, my pulse racing faster than an Indy car.  I’ll hear that murderous alarm even after I’m six feet under.

The colorful Beddi

Today – mercifully – we have several alarm clocks designed not so much to levitate but rather to ameliorate your transition into the conscious world.  Beddi – a “designer smart-clock” – is a sleek enough bedside companion.  Along with charging your phone, Beddi controls the dawning of your bedroom lights or the gradual amplification of your favorite playlist or even the pleasing aroma of your coffeemaker.  You choose how you wish to wake up.

The cute Kello

Kello is the spitting image of a toaster, but it’s really a partner for your body clock, with sleep-training modes to wake you a little earlier each day, or guided breathing exercises to help you nod off faster each night.  Kello also offers music in place of an alarm and can restrict the number of times you can whack the snooze button.

The sadistic Pavlok

Some people demand a little more, uh – torture – to get themselves up and out of bed.  Ruggie is exactly what it sounds like – an innocent-looking rug placed just to the side of the bed.  Ruggie is all about blasting music in louder and louder bursts, and the only way to shut the blessed thing up is to stand – full body-weight – atop of its fleeced surface for at least thirty seconds.  Then there’s Pavlok, a wearable alarm clock programmed via smart phone app.  Pavlok begins with a beep or a vibration (my advice – get up NOW) – but left to its own “devices” matures into a pulsing, zapping electric shock when you still don’t respond.  Pavlok is also happy to electrocute for trivial pursuits like biting your nails, smoking, or too much time on the Web.

Don’t know about you, but I have no interest in meeting Pavlok’s inventor.  Mr. Shock Clock is one messed-up sadistic soul, and probably has a host of other torture devices at the ready.  Like flaming condoms.

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Two for the Money

Not so long ago people would say to me – my grandpa included – “a penny for your thoughts”. I always liked that phrase, though I was never paid for whatever was on my mind. Today you don’t hear it so much, because nothing is worth just a penny anymore. You’d be better off giving a dollar. Or two dollars.  Maybe then you’d find out what people think.

The other day I was in the drive-thru lane at my bank, and the teller cashed a twenty, returning a small stack of bills – a $1, a $5, a $10… and two $2-dollar bills.  I’ve seen plenty of the first three, but when was the last time you came across the double-dollar? U.S. currency may be downright boring compared to the colorful equivalents in other countries, but today I say this: the uncommon $2 is a cool bit of cash.

America’s paper money prints in just seven options today, from the $1 on up to the $100-dollar bill.  Fifty years ago you could find several larger denominations ($100,000!), but the big boys were dropped from circulation to deter organized crime.  Even today, the $50 and the $100 get second looks for fear of counterfeits.  The lion’s share of circulating bills is the $1 on up to the $20.  But the one that earns a second look? The $2.

What makes the $2 so tony?  Try finding one.  I asked my bank how many they have in the drawer at any given time.  They said none.  In fact, I didn’t just get my couple of $2’s – I had to ask for them – and the teller had to go back to the vault to find them.  The $2 just isn’t in demand anymore – hasn’t been for a long time.  The U.S. Mint stopped printing $2’s in 1966, but thanks to America’s bicentennial, started the presses again in 1976.  The most recent printing of the $2 was 2016 – almost 200 million – but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the U.S. currency clan.  If you could shake the globe over a big basket, you’d find 40 billion U.S. bills in circulation right now.  But the overlooked $2 represents less than 0.5% of the lot.

I like the $2 because of its unique look.  Thomas Jefferson is on the front – oval-framed as in a portrait (only George on the $1 has the same look).  The words “Federal Reserve Note” curve gracefully over TJ’s head; on all other bills those words are in a mundane straight line.  Finally, the $2 is the only bill without a building on the back, like the Lincoln Memorial or the White House.  Instead, you have an edge-to-edge top-to-bottom rendition of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (replacing TJ’s Monticello home from earlier versions).

The two-dollar bill has several chapters of urban legend much more colorful than other denominations.  Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak purchases $2’s in uncut sheets; then has them perforated and glued like a Post-It pad.  He enjoys tearing off several for tipping.  U.S. Air Force pilots of the U-2 spy plane keep a $2 in their flight suit; a sort of badge of distinction. $2’s are often used by gun rights activists to show support for the Second Amendment. The website Where’s George? keeps track of the circulation of over five million registered $2’s.

Despite my enthusiasm for the buck-buck, it’s not without its challenges.  The $2 is not accepted at most vending machines.  The common misconception the $2 is no longer circulating leads to suspicion of counterfeiting.  Two years ago at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Texas, a 13-year-old was denied lunch privileges for using a $2 at the cafeteria window.  A man in Baltimore was jailed for using $2’s to pay for a purchase at Best Buy.

My couple of $2’s will stay with me a little while, at least until the novelty wears off.  Maybe I’ll spend one of them just to see what happens.  Maybe I’ll return the other to the bank vault for safekeeping.  Today’s lesson; there’s more to American money than fives, tens, and twenties.  $2’s have a place at the U.S. currency table as well, just as they did when first minted in 1862.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Wee Wardens of Wash

Let’s wage a debate where the arguments “against” easily beat the arguments “for”, but we’re so stubbornly “for” we wage the debate anyway. Sound like politics?  Not today. Race relations? No way, José. Pepsi vs. Coke? Maybe another time. Today we’re putting a much hotter topic on the table: shampoo. More specifically, hotel shampoo.

Last weekend my family and I stayed at a Fairfield Inn – a low-end entrée on the Marriott hotel menu.  Fairfield’s are fine by us – clean and basic overnight accommodations, (with a free breakfast that actually digests).  In this instance, we entered the lobby to the smell of freshly-baked help-yourself chocolate-chip cookies.  That was a nice surprise.  After check-in, we made our way around the corner to the elevators, and on up to our third-floor rooms.

Let’s pause here for a quick survey.  What’s the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room – check out the view?  Channel-surf the TV?  Flop on the bed?  Not me. I head to the bathroom to check out the small “freebies” on the counter.  Chances are I’ll find (at a minimum) soap for the sink, soap for the shower, boxed tissues, makeup-remover wipes, and maybe even a tiny cloth to polish shoes.  Also for the taking: shampoo, conditioner, and body-wash bottles, lined up like little dominoes just waiting to take the plunge into the nearby shower.  But guess what?  Those little soldiers of sanitation are about to go MIA.

In the next few months, according to a Wall Street Journal article, many of America’s hotel bathrooms will drop “little bottles” in favor of shower-wall bulk dispensers.  In today’s environmentally-conscious world, you have to wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner.  Consider the arguments against these little grime-fighting gunners.  They create tons upon tons of plastic waste.  They get thrown away half-full – so effectively waste on top of waste.  The moment you need them is the moment you’re already wet in the shower (and they’re still over on the counter).  Finally, for anyone who requires reading glasses – hello, me – little bottle labels are impossible to decipher while you’re standing under shower spray. Raise your hand if you’ve ever put body wash in your hair.

More arguments against.  Bulk dispensers keep the shampoo in the hotel and the bottles out of the landfills.  They give you as much or as little product as you need.  Bulk dispensers can easily be refilled by housekeeping (though picture the short-straw employee who has to decant the contents of the leftover bottles into the dispensers).  Finally, bulk dispensers eliminate five billion little bottles a year.  Okay, that last argument is pretty much the only one you need.  And yet…

This change brings me pain.  Staying at hotels won’t be the same without my wee wardens of wash.  My singular argument for?  I’m all about personal touch; the little things that make you go, “wow, I feel special”.  Those little heroes of hygiene do that for me.  So do chocolate-chip cookies.

To add fuel to the fire, I expect hotels to eventually remove everything else from the bathroom counter.  You’ll find nothing but a faucet, towels, and TP.  While they’re at it, they’ll eliminate the logo pens, the paper pads, the stationery, and even the bedside clock-radio’s.  Cleanse the room of anything moveable.  Why do this?  Because hotels know they can condition you to bring your own stuff.  And before you say, “Dave, that’s a stretch”, consider the airlines.  It wasn’t that long ago the ticket agent checked you in, printed your boarding pass, and slapped the luggage tag on your suitcase.  Pretty soon you’ll be flying the plane.

Truthfully, I can do without my little defenders of disinfection, as long as hotels don’t take away my elbow room.  But that’s already happening, isn’t it? Blame Japan for the “little room” concept.  America is now a breeding ground for “capsule hotels”.  Capsules give you nothing more than a bed-closet and a down-the-hall community bathroom.  They’re described as “cheap, basic, overnight accommodations”.  Wait, wait, wait – isn’t that the same definition I gave our Fairfield Inn?  One of these days someone will say to me, “Wow, the Fairfield. Y’all stay nice.”

In the meantime, rest in peace little marines of clean.  Your work is done.  Time for the big boys to take over.

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