What the tiniest creatures can teach us about adapting to life’s challenges

October 24, 2017 by  
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John Steinbeck wrote that “all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time.” He had a great big feeling about life, but spent a lot of time just poking around little tidepools to get it. Great minds–from Copernicus to Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein–have always done this, observing life’s tiny details and looking for connections between them. These little things add up to deep patterns that can sometimes change the world. Steinbeck’s gentle nudge to “look from the tidepool to the stars and then back to the tidepool again”–is actually an act of revolution. Little things trigger big changes–and that’s exactly how biomimicry can help us better adapt to the world around us. A lot of people don’t know that Steinbeck was also a biologist, or that his best friend was Ed Ricketts, the only scientist in history to have 15 animal species (and a nightclub) named after him . Before Ricketts, biology was a pretty Victorian affair. Gentlemen naturalists traveled around collecting specimens, dissecting them and pinning them on boards, categorizing and naming them. Most studied each creature separately, but Ricketts was compelled by the connections between them–he is widely regarded as the first marine ecologist. Ricketts and Steinbeck were having tough times in their personal lives, and decided to charter a fishing boat, and escape along the Pacific Coast. They went from Monterey to San Diego, along the length of Baja California, around Cabo San Lucas, and finally into the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck’s book, The Log From the Sea of Cortez , is a cult classic for geeks like me, describing how the pair dropped anchor here and there, puttering around the tidepools they discovered, observing and collecting tiny creatures along the way. Inevitably, a group of little kids would gather round to see what they were up to. The kids had never seen scientists before, and didn’t know what to make of grown men poking around tidepools for something besides dinner. Exploring was strictly kid stuff, so they figured Ricketts and Steinbeck must be doing something else. “ What did you lose? ” they would ask. The men would look at them in surprise. “ Nothing! “ “ Well, what are you looking for then? “ Being a philosophical kind of writer, Steinbeck thought this was a great question. What exactly were they looking for? What were they expecting these tiny creatures to teach them? Quite a lot, it turns out, and many regard Ricketts’ book Between Pacific Tides as the Bible of modern marine biology. There were hundreds of small discoveries–and 50 new species–but Ricketts’ key contribution was the way he untangled complex relationships among ocean inhabitants, large and small. He saw that water temperatures affected plankton levels, which affected larger species, and that overfishing in warm years led to crashes in the sardine populations years later. He even predicted the catastrophic loss of the once-thriving Monterey fishery. Everything was connected, and small effects reverberated in unexpected ways through vast ecological webs. Ricketts made a habit of observing small details in the living world, and saw them build to deep patterns that suddenly changed everything. This process–studying nature’s little details, finding the connections between them, identifying deep patterns that stand the test of time, and abstracting them into solutions we can borrow—is the key to biomimicry , the art and science of innovation inspired by nature. Biomimicry is part of a profound change in the way we see the world, the way we make and do things, and the way we think about our way of life. When we really look, we begin to realize that humans face exactly the same kinds of problems other species do, and that the 30 million or so species that share this planet with us have their own solutions. “After 3.8 billion years of research and development,” writes biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus , “failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.” These strategies are the ultimate in sustainability—solutions that have worked for generations without diminishing the potential for future offspring to succeed. Sharks have cruised the oceans virtually unchanged for 400 million years, and the ancient Hawaiian concept of the octopus as the last survivor of a past universe is accurate, because their relatives passed through several major extinction events that wiped out almost all their contemporaries. These ways of life work, even as the world changes. 99.9% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct, and those that remain are the survivors, the most successful 0.1% of all life. As I write in my new book, Teeming: How Superorganisms Work Together to Build Infinite Wealth on a Finite Planet (and your company can too) , we clever humans overthink our answers, forcing square pegs into round holes because we can. We invent one-off solutions—and new polymers–for every problem, and get heavy-handed about creating them. If we’re dealing with high impact—in the automotive or aerospace industry, for instance—we heat, beat, treat various raw resources into submission. If we need to stick something in place, we use toxic glues. Flooding? Build a giant dam. Drought? Build a very long ditch. Our solutions require huge amounts of energy and materials, and produce a lot of waste–things no creature can eat. Our chemical answers make us sick, and poison our planet, and are neither adaptive nor resilient. The creatures of the tidepools solve these same kinds of challenges every day, without fancy Research and Development teams or even—in many cases—brains. Big waves smash down and sweep across the rocks. Organisms are stranded in the baking sun, blasted with UV light. Tiny creatures are constantly flooded or baked, exposed to radical swings in salinity and temperature. Yet their strategies last, while our own industrial solutions have only been around a couple hundred years and seem to create more heartaches and headaches. What can these little beings teach us? Related: INTERVIEW: Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker on how biomimicry can improve happiness and creativity in the workplace Sea urchins thrive in pounding surf, because their spines are like shock absorbers, helping them wedge between rocks. Look through the scanning electron microscope, and you see an exquisite microstructure, perfectly designed to spread impact forces and stop cracks from spreading, with predetermined weak points that can fail without hurting the animal. Stiff and strong, yet flexible, these natural ceramics regenerate at surrounding temperatures from local minerals, powered by algal energy scraped from nearby rocks and grown from sunlight. Abalone and oyster shells offer stunning mother of pearl with remarkable properties. One deep-water oyster–the windowpane oyster—is nearly transparent and practically bulletproof. Nacre, as this material called, is incredibly strong, and yet chemically, isn’t much different from crumbly chalk. Look under the right microscope, and you’ll see it is composed of many layers of tiny hexagonal tiles, mortared with thin sheets of bendy, elastic protein. All of it is hyper-efficient, made from local materials, using life-friendly chemistry and conditions. Material scientists are working hard to 3D print analogous solutions. Barnacles filter tiny food particles from the water, protruding their highly modified legs to use as nets. But when the tide goes out, their homes seal perfectly shut, protecting their tiny, watery world. The microscope reveals four little French doors that open and shut. Each is hard and strong, but near the edges, they transition into a flexible, plastic-like gel, like the rubbery seal inside your car door–but intricately fringed to create an incredibly tight, interlocking seal. These are precision mechanics, grown from nanoscopic genetic blueprints, in microscopic cell factories. They self-repair when damaged, and respond intelligently and instantly to changing conditions. Sea cucumbers are soft and floppy, sliding through the narrow spaces between rocks. But when touched, tiny hairy whiskers in their skin enzymatically orient and bind into a firm, rigid net. When the predator is gone, other enzymes break the bonds and make the skin soft again. Scientists are copying this for electrodes (rigid for implanting, and soft in the body), and protective clothing like bulletproof vests. Seastars must stick to the reefs as they move around in search of prey, even as violent waves come and go. The solution is a reversible adhesive—a sticky glue that works underwater, even on slimy algae–that they excrete from their feet and turn instantly on and off with protein activators. Imagine if we could copy that! All these solutions work at ambient temperatures using locally available materials and water as a solvent. There are no toxic chemicals, no extreme heat, no carbon emissions. They don’t even need to be manufactured—they assemble themselves from the bottom up, powered (ultimately) by sunlight. These solutions adapt to local conditions on the fly and are made from a small set of universal building blocks that other creatures can eat and make new things with. These solutions are edible! They are smart, responsive, and flexible, and perform as well, if not better, than synthetic materials–while weighing 30 to 300% less. They are deeply efficient and sustainable, shaped by billions of years of natural selection, making our own synthetic solutions look distinctly amateurish. These solutions and many more have caught the eye of “mainstream” business and other organizations–Fortune Magazine called Biomimicry the #1 trend in business for 2017, and many institutions not traditionally thought of as “green”–including the military, NASA, and a wide range of industrial chemical, medical, and material science companies are eager to tap nature’s “open source” genius. It’s an exciting time, and little ripples of innovation are starting to add up to a tidal wave of change. Biomimicry is a profound change in the way we see the world, the way we and do things, and the way we think about our way of life. Small things build to deep patterns that have the power to change everything. For every challenge we face, we can ask ourselves how nature would do it, then look closely. The little things we see around us every day could one day change the world . + Teeming: How Superorganisms Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World lead image via Unsplash Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker is an evolutionary biologist, primatologist, and biomimicry pioneer with an extensive background in leadership, innovation, and sustainability. Her book Teeming: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World is available now .

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What the tiniest creatures can teach us about adapting to life’s challenges

Scientists capture first ever image of dark matter web that connects galaxies

April 12, 2017 by  
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For the first time ever, scientists have captured an image of a dark matter bridge, confirming the theory that galaxies are held together by a cosmic web. Until now, the massive dark matter web was hidden to us, but using a series of individual images to create a composite, researchers have identified the elusive cosmic connector. Dark matter makes up about a quarter of the universe, but it is difficult for us to detect it because it doesn’t reflect or shine light. But using a technique called weak gravitational lensing, researchers were able to identify distortions of distant galaxies as they are influenced by a large, unseen mass, such as dark matter. Related: Newly discovered ‘ghost galaxy’ full of dark matter is as big as the Milky Way The scientists looked at more than 23,000 galaxy pairs to create a composite image that shows the dark matter web for the first time. Researchers published their findings in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society . “By using this technique, we’re not only able to see that these dark matter filaments in the universe exist, we’re able to see the extent to which these filaments connect galaxies together,” said Seth D. Epps, one of the scientists, along with Michael J. Hudson, who completed the research. via Phys.org images via Epps and Hudson, The weak-lensing masses of filaments between luminous red galaxies

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New graphene sieve can remove even small salts from seawater

April 4, 2017 by  
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Graphene is the world’s strongest material, but that’s not all it can do. The wonder material can also be used as a filter that removes salts from seawater so it’s safe to drink. While scientists have eyed graphene-oxide membranes for better filtration – and even showed graphene could filter out large salts – now 13 University of Manchester scientists developed graphene membranes that can sieve common, smaller salts out of water. It takes small sieves to remove common salts from substances like seawater, and in the past when placed in water graphene-oxide membranes swelled, and weren’t able to catch those smaller salts. The University of Manchester scientists found a way to control the pore size of the graphene to sieve those common small salts out of water. Professor Rahul Nair, one of the scientists part of the research, said the realization of “membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale” is a significant step. Related: Affordable new biofoam could revolutionize how developing countries clean water The discovery could open doors to efficient, less expensive desalination technology – which the university points out is crucial as climate change depletes water supply in modern cities. In just around eight years, 14 percent of the world’s population could face water scarcity, according to United Nations estimates, and not all countries can afford large, expensive desalination plants to provide relief to their citizens. The university says the graphene technology pursued by the scientists could revolutionize water filtration around the world, offering an affordable option for developing countries . The researchers think their discovery could be scaled up for wider use. Nair said in a statement, “This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.” The journal Nature Nanotechnology published the research online yesterday. Via The University of Manchester Images via The University of Manchester and Pixabay

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Scientists create a new kind of matter called time crystals

January 30, 2017 by  
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Proving that there is still so much for science to discover, two groups of scientists have created a new phase of matter called time crystals. Based on a blueprint from University of California, Berkeley assistant professor of physics Norman Yao, the scientists created crystals whose structure repeats in time rather than space. If time crystals sound like a far-fetched science fiction daydream, Yao explained they move somewhat like jiggling Jell-O, but through time. Regular crystals, like diamonds , are comprised of an atomic lattice, an arrangement of atoms, that repeats in space. Time crystals’ structure can continue through time, in perpetual movement. Yao said, “Wouldn’t it be super weird if you jiggled the Jell-O and found that somehow it responded at a different period? But that is the essence of the time crystal.” Related: Scientists blend photosynthesis and quantum physics to improve solar cells The creation of time crystals in itself is crazy, but Yao said that’s not the only thrilling aspect of this advance. In a statement, he said, “This is a new phase of matter, period, but it is also really cool because it is one of the first examples of non-equilibrium matter. For the last half-century, we have been exploring equilibrium matter, like metals and insulators. We are just now starting to explore a whole new landscape of non-equilibrium matter.” In contrast, other crystals like rubies or diamonds are in motionless equilibrium, but as non-equilibrium matter time crystals continually move. Groups at Harvard University and the University of Maryland followed Yao’s blueprint and were able to create time crystals, turning futuristic fantasy into reality. They used “two totally different setups,” according to the UC Berkeley statement, and have both submitted articles for publication, with Yao as co-author on both. Physical Review Letters published a paper online earlier this month in which Yao detailed the process to create time crystals. There may be few uses for time crystals – Yao couldn’t immediately think of any – but their discovery is important as scientists begin exploring non-equilibrium matter, other phases of which could be useful, for example, in quantum computers. Via Phys.org and Popular Mechanics Images via Pixabay and Chris Monroe

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Scientists create a new kind of matter called time crystals

Upcycled urban cafe in India modeled after communal "chawls"

January 30, 2017 by  
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Call it what you will, but the creators of Cyber Hub Studio in New Delhi have applied their “anti-design” style of minimal intervention and maximum up-cycling to create one very unique urban cafe. To create the Cyber Hub Studio, a 5,000-square-foot warehouse inspired by traditional communal-living chawls found throughout India, the firm filled the space with vast array of quirky odds and ends. The designers focused on adapting a low-cost housing model from the beginning of the project, but the principal theme of chawls led the design scheme. Chawls are large buildings divided into separate tenements, which were used to provide very basic accommodation to mill laborers in Indian cities. Related: Tokyo factory is transformed into an industrial-chic Blue Bottle Coffee cafe According to the architects’ description, this theme was meant to emit a message of unified coexistence to visitors of the cafe,” Chawls were first created to house as many mill workers in one building – a space that was efficient and functional. In the same way, the hub has evolved into a space that symbolizes community living – a place that stands for unity, togetherness, security, camaraderie, cultural essence and ethos – minus all of the pretences of modern day life.” The design team went the distance to incorporate colors and themes typically found in the makeshift housing units, recreating the appearance of a thriving social living situation with a festive, creative twist that makes it an intriguing hangout for socializing. On the interior, a dark narrow hallway is flanked by rooms on either side, each one with a distinct decor. Upcycled materials and furniture are found throughout the rooms, which lead to a central courtyard that houses a bar and dance floor. Once outdoors, revelers can enjoy seating made out of large concrete pipes that have been “artistically vandalised” with graffiti. Via Archdaily + Chromed Design Studio Photography by Suryan / Dang

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Upcycled urban cafe in India modeled after communal "chawls"

Harvard scientists claim they’ve made Earth’s first metallic hydrogen

January 27, 2017 by  
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For 80 long years, scientists have attempted in vain to produce a metal from hydrogen . A super substance thought to be present on other planets , metallic hydrogen could generate a rocket propellant around four times more powerful than what we possess now, allowing us to make advanced technologies like super-fast computers. Now two scientists at Harvard University say they have achieved the near miraculous. But other scientists are skeptical – the sensational discovery may just be too good to be true. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qitm5fteL0 Ranga Dias and Isaac Silvera of Harvard University say they’ve been able to create metallic hydrogen in the laboratory by squeezing hydrogen between diamonds inside a cryostat, at a pressure even greater than that at the Earth’s center. The journal Science published their astonishing findings this week. In a Harvard press release, Silvera said, “This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics . It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.” Related: MIT’s new carbon-free supercapacitor could revolutionize the way we store power But other scientists aren’t so sure. A string of failed tries, from scientists around the world, precede the Harvard news. One physicist from France’s Atomic Energy Commission even said, “I don’t think the paper is convincing at all.” The Harvard scientists maintain they were able to polish the diamonds better, to remove any potentially damaging irregularities, and were able to crush the hydrogen gas at pressures greater than others have. Silvera said they produced a “lustry, reflective sample, which you can only believe is a metal .” But that shiny substance could be nothing more than alumina (aluminium oxide), according to geophysicist Alexander Goncharov from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. That material coats the diamonds’ tips, and could act differently under the pressure. Silvera said they wanted to break the news before starting confirmation tests, which could ruin their sample. Now that their paper is out, they plan to perform more experiments. Stay tuned. Via Scientific American and The Independent Images via screenshot and Isaac Silvera/Harvard University

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Futuristic green city design runs like a real rainforest in Malaysia

January 27, 2017 by  
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If money were no object, what would the ideal city of the future look like? Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA) answered that question with a spectacular design for the Forest City, a proposed masterplan for a new city in Malaysia. This 20-square-kilometer green smart city would be built around a central rainforest and mimic the forest’s ecosystem by adopting a closed loop system that reuses all its resources and controls out-flow. Winner of the second place prize in an international design competition , the Forest City was created for a 24-hectare site and judged on its efficiency of land use, sensitivity to the environment, and inclusion of a landmark building that embodied the notion of a forest city. “Skylines across the world look the same—usually a couple of iconic towers in the center surrounded by lots of lesser quality buildings, which all resemble each other,” said Chris Bosse, director of LAVA. “Here we have designed an inverse city skyline where the icon of the city is a public space, not an object/building. Our central space is a Rainforest Valley and demonstrates the equation: PEOPLE = CITY. From an object to a place.” The proposed city for 700,000 people would be located on reclaimed land between Malaysia and Singapore and include office towers, residential areas, parks, hotels, shopping malls, and an international school. The city is organized around a central public space, the Rainforest Valley, which is surrounded by a waterfall and serves as a visual reminder of the city as a three-dimensional ecosystem. The valley extends like fingers in five directions to represent the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—as well as the five pillars of sustainability. Related: LAVA’s Addis Ababa Football Stadium Celebrates Ethiopia’s Ancient Heritage A group of buildings step down towards the green park and are heavily landscaped with roof gardens . A Landmark Tower will house the serviced apartments, hotels, retail and commercial space. As a pedestrian-friendly development, the design separates the circulation types by directing vehicular traffic underground and placing trains on a level above pedestrian walkways. Like a rainforest, the city will be designed as a mostly closed loop system with recycling processes hidden underground and outflow minimized. Local materials would be used in construction and energy generated from renewable sources. + Laboratory for Visionary Architecture

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Futuristic green city design runs like a real rainforest in Malaysia

Scientists are preparing to march on Washington

January 25, 2017 by  
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With the Women’s March on Washington an unmitigated success, scientists are preparing their own demonstration at the nation’s capital. It began, as many of these things do, with a stray comment. “There needs to be a Scientists’ March on Washington,” someone wrote on Reddit , where several scientists discussed their concerns over what they perceived to be the Trump administration’s antipathy, if not outright hostility, to climate science and other environmental issues. Dozens chimed in with their approval. ”Please arrange this. it won’t change trump-mans [sic] [mind, but by all that is sacred, it needs to be done,” one participant said. “100%!” another declared enthusiastically.

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Scientists are preparing to march on Washington

Scientists turn eggshells into eco-friendly data-storage devices

January 23, 2017 by  
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Walk on eggshells? Not these scientists. A team from Guizhou Institute of Technology is working on a way to turn ground-up bits of the breakfast byproduct into a data-storage device that could pave the way for eco-friendlier computers. The device itself uses something called resistive random-access memory , ReRAM for short, a type of non-volatile, high-density yet energy-sipping memory system that could soon supplant your flash drive as a data silo. Instead of storing a charge, like conventional memory does, ReRAM works by creating electrical resistance across a dielectric solid-state material that transmits voltage without conducting it, essentially serving as an insulator. As it turns out, eggshells have a “large resistive-switching memory,” as the scientists noted in the February 2017 issue of Current Applied Physics , where they published their findings. But don’t start sticking eggs in your USB port just yet. To create the device, they first pulverized the shells for hours into an ultra-fine, nanoscale powder, which they then dissolved in solution. Related: Scientists invent the world’s first microchip powered by biological systems The resulting paste, coated onto a substrate, became the electrolyte portion of a memory chip, that is, the part that carries the electrical charge. Whatever they did worked. The eggshell-based device was able to write 100 bits of binary code into its memory before it broke down. It’ll take some tinkering before the device can stack up against materials that can manage billions of cycles, but the promise is there. “This discovery provides for the possibility of an environmentally friendly, low-cost and sustainable material application in the next-generation nonvolatile date storage device,” the scientists said. Egg -citing. Via New Scientist Photos by Kullez and Bruce Guenter

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Scientists turn eggshells into eco-friendly data-storage devices

Al Gore fights climate change with "An Inconvenient Sequel"

January 23, 2017 by  
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When Al Gore ‘s landmark climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the administration in Washington was averse to climate change action. Eleven years later Gore has debuted his follow up film, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” at Sundance — just as Donald Trump takes office as the nation’s 45th president. Despite the dire prospects for the climate under Trump after eight years of modest gains under former President Barack Obama, Gore was upbeat in comments to the crowd after two standing ovations followed the Sundance screening. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2unzHvFPtY0 “Now we are undergoing a time of challenge, but we are going to prevail,” the former vice president said at the post-screening Q&A, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m not going to give all the evidence of why I’m so confident. Always remember that the will to act is a renewable resource. We will win. No one person can stop this movement. We want this movie to recruit others.” Related: Al Gore reaches out to work with Donald Trump on climate change Gore met with the president at Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 5 to talk about climate change solutions. In an interview with THR , Gore said that Trump was “receptive” to some of what he had to say. Gore revealed that he has maintained private communications with Trump since the public meeting in December, joking that he couldn’t go into details about how they communicated because the Russians could hack it. “An Inconvenient Truth” was a great success, winning two Academy Awards, including Best Documentary Feature. The film grossed $49.8 million in worldwide box office proceeds, becoming the tenth highest grossing documentary film to date in the United States. The challenges of global warming have only increased in the past decade, with 2016 setting a heat record for the third straight year. Fortunately, renewables are rapidly ramping up as countries aim to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set forth in the Paris climate agreement . “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” opens in Germany on June 15 before hitting US theaters on July 28. Via Slate Image and video via IMDB

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Al Gore fights climate change with "An Inconvenient Sequel"

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