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Is man the measure of all things? This question has been at the forefront of philosophy ever since Protagoras proclaimed that man is the measure of all things. Sometime before he died in 420 BCE Protagoras locked horns with Socrates in a debate captured for us by Plato. It is a close reading of these works of Plato that is the subject of this book by Robert Bartlett, the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College.

 

A dramatic artistic impression of Protagoras, by the 17th century painter Jusepe de Ribera, graces the cover of this exploration of Plato's two texts, the Protagoras and the Theaetetus. Despite his own vast learning and study, Bartlett admits more than once that the meaning embedded in Plato's works is far from transparent. For example, on pg. 78, he writes “It is difficult to know what to make of these challenging exchanges.”

 

He is referring to a discussion between Protagoras and Socrates on the subject of wisdom, courage and boldness. It occurs in Plato's text Protagoras. Socrates attempts to show it is the wisest who are boldest, and, being boldest, most courageous. So, Socrates concludes, “according to this argument, the wisdom [in question] would be courage.”

 

Bartlett's comment on this point of the argument is illuminating. “Showing much boldness or at least confidence himself, Protagoras calmly declines to be force-fed this highly compressed argument: Socrates' recollection isn't a noble one.” As the argument progresses, Protagoras insists that “courage and wisdom are not the same thing.” Bartlett poses a pregnant question: “Is it really possible for Protagoras still to maintain that one can be both 'very courageous' and 'very ignorant'?”

 

During the argument Protagoras charges Socrates with committing a logical fallacy, one that Socrates never rebuts. Discerning meaning in what did not happen (a rebuttal) is the author's gift to the reader. He opens our eyes to what this means. Socrates' “silence has the effect of bolstering Protagoras' confidence or boldness: we see before our eyes the marriage of boldness and (what is taken to be) wisdom issuing in the courage to stand one's ground or to fight back, at least in argument.”

 

Bartlett is equally insightful in his analysis of the Theaetetus. Protagoras states “For the sort of things that seem to each city to be just and noble, these things are in fact for it, for so long as it recognizes them.” Bartlett regards this “as frank a statement as one could wish for of the 'moral relativism' of Protagoras”, who goes on in Plato's text to draw a distinction between the point of view of “the wise” and that of “the cities.” The wise are extramoral or amoral, while cities exhibit morality through-and-through.

 

The existence of this chasm,” writes Bartlett, “must be an important part of the 'education' for which the capable sophist is responsible.” As the first man to declare himself to be a sophist, “Protagoras thus defends the idea of wisdom in general and his own superior wisdom in particular.” Whether or not Socrates really defeats Protagoras at his own game is a question I will leave to the studious reader of this entrancing book. But Bartlett, in conclusion, contends that “Socrates did not succumb to the chaos-inducing motion that can go together with the thought that a human being is the measure” of all things.

 

This books is, as the author states, about “the battle between political philosophy and sophistry at its peak.” With extraordinary erudition, Bartlett has made this a crucial text in both disciplines.

 

 

Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates (248 pages) is $40 by University of Chicago Press.

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The Immigrant was first performed in 1985 and has become a staple of theatre companies ever since. I first reviewed the play in 2012, when it was performed in Ft. Lauderdale. Don Toner, who is directing the play at the Austin Playhouse for the second time, told me that the actors who portrayed the Jewish couple in his first production here in Austin 28 years ago coached the actors in this play with the dialect and songs.

 

Imagine a man with business sense, a woman with a big heart, and a young Russian Jew with drive and a dream. The result of this unlikely synergy in a small Texas town a century ago is The Immigrant. Set in Hamilton (pop. 1200), 120 miles north of Austin, the performance takes place on a minimalist stage set against an ever-changing backdrop of period photos of the real-life characters that inspired the play. It all serves to enhance the often dramatic and sometimes comical plot.

 

In the lead role of Haskell Harelik is Joseph Garlock as a young immigrant from Russia (circa 1906). In Hamilton he encounters the husband and wife team of Milton and Ima Perry, played by Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams. Part way through the play they are joined by Haskell's wife, portrayed by Estrella Saldana. This tight group make the text sparkle: a superb individual and quartet performance.

 

The play is a study in courage at many levels. As Ima says to Haskell, “travelling thousands of miles, putting on a new language, and eating my cooking: if that's not courage I don't know what is!”

 

Toner says thatWith all the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewing out of the White House these days, it is good to be reminded that this country was built by immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Their diversity, hard work, and love of country are truly what makes us great.”

 

But as some members of the audience said, the immigrants of a century ago were committed to integrating, and often anxious to slough off the language and customs of their heritage to become Americans. This is not always the case with 21st century immigrants to the U.S., and the same can be said for immigrants to Canada and European countries. Whatever the case, this play takes the blinkers off to let anyone who sees it regard immigration in a different way, and that power will endure as long as immigration (forced or otherwise) continues to shape the nations of Earth.

 

The Immigrant will be at the Austin Playhouse until Jan. 28, 2018.

 

Lead photo: Huck Huckaby and Joseph Garlock

 

second photo: Cyndi Williams and Huck Huckaby

 

Follow this link to read my review of this play from 2012:

 

http://sunnewsmiami.com/entertainment/theatre/item/72-the-immigrant

 

 

 

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Casanova. Even 300 years after his life, the name evokes a certain frisson. But why? The 342-page catalogue accompanying an exhibit about him has this to say.

 

“Tall, olive-skinned, and muscular, Casanova exuded mesmeric charm, beguiling men and women alike with traits that would be repellent in others. The daughter of an Englishman living in Venice called him vain, unbearable, and, as soon as he began to speak, irresistible.”

 

While I just said the exhibit is about Casanova, that is not strictly the case. The intent of the directors from the three host museums (Museum of Fine Arts [Boston], Kimbell Art Museum [Fort Worth] and Fine Arts Museum [San Francisco] was “to create- through bringing together paintings, sculpture, works on paper, silver, ceramics, furniture and costume- the context within which Casanova expressed his values and views on life and culture.”

 

Those viewing the exhibit, which opens in San Francisco on Feb. 10 following its recent run at the Kimbell, will find it difficult to capture the essence of Casanova. I spoke to a long-time viewer of art exhibits who said she found the exhibit very beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying. For those who have the time, I recommend a careful reading of the excellent catalogue before seeing the exhibit, as it provides a lot of texture showing how the various displays weave the story of his life.

 

One thing the catalogue does not illustrate are the most arresting for the viewer to the exhibit: a series of tableaus depicting life in the 18th century. The one shown here evokes a raucous card game. The player seated is a professional swindler who has been caught with a card up his sleeve. The gentleman who has been swindled is shown rising so abruptly that his chair is flung backwards.

 

Understanding what this has to do with Casanova is an example of how the museum patron has to study the descriptions and make connections. When Casanova arrived in London he went to see Teresa Cornelys. He believed her daughter to also be his daughter. Teresa had a notorious mansion, Carlisle House, which was THE society venue for masked balls and gambling. Casanova claimed he met all the royalty and nobility of England at Carlisle House, except for King George, his wife, and the Princess of Wales.

 

The staging of masked balls there and in Venice, where Casanova spent several years, also explains the appearance of several paintings depicting masked people. Among these is a delightful pair by Giovanni Tiepolo, The Minuet and The Charlatan, both from 1756. Like the card game tableau, these represent something akin to what Casanova saw, but there is no direct link.

 

King George IIIThe closest one comes to the real Casanova is in the form of books he wrote, including a science fiction novel, described in the exhibit as nearly unreadable. I was expecting to learn more about it from the catalogue, but neither this nor any of his other textual works are depicted. This emphasizes all the more the necessity to closely study both the catalogue and the exhibit to get the full benefit of the collaboration: dozens of museums from Canada, the United States and Europe have lent items, and this alone makes it worth seeing. I was especially pleased to see a portrait of King George III that I have not seen despite many trips to London. It is on loan from the Bank of England Museum, which curiously is not listed in the catalogue as a lender. Likewise, the painting does not appear in the catalogue.

 

This portrait occupies a place in the exhibits' final room, which offers sculptures and portraits of some of the most famous people Cananova met. These include Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Pope Benedict XIV, and Rousseau. A spectacular way to end a complex and fascinating glimpse into an 18th century life of grand excess.

 

Next on display at the Kimbell in Forth Worth is a collection of 400 artworks from Asia, collected by Sam and Myrna Myers. It opens March 4, 2018. Visit the website for details: kimbellart.org.

 

 

 

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President Johnson and his family did not usually celebrate Christmas at the White House, but his wife Lady Bird persuaded him to do so in 1967. The charm of that event is currently on view in two display cases at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.

The Johnson family Christmas stockingsTwo Christmas stockings, a gift from a friend and first used in '67, show memorable moments from their lives. The President's stocking shows a little boy under the sign Johnson City, signifying he was born there. Air Force One, and a map of Texas, also adorn the stocking. A smaller map of the state appears on his wife's stocking, emblazoned with the place Karnack, where she was born. She is also depicted as First Lady in a yellow gown.

Lady Bird's gold brocade outfit from 1967The actual gold brocade outfit she wore in the lead photo with this story, as she looks at her grandson Patrick, is also on display. Several of the ornaments from the White House tree are also being shown, along with a photo of their dog Yuki sitting under the White House Christmas tree.

While much scholarly work goes on here, and most of the exhibits focus on the serious issues of his presidency, this little glimpse into a happy day of a turbulent period is most welcome at this time of year.

The LBJ Library and Museum is open daily throughout the year. Visit their website: www.lbjlibrary.org

 

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The inventive genius of Leonardo da Vinci is currently on display at the Texas Museum of Science. While he is best known as the painter of the Mona Lisa, and his name has been famously co-opted by the da Vinci Code, his most lasting legacy is in the field of engineering.

Even though most of his inventions never left the pages of his notebooks, they were re-created several years ago in Italy. This impressive suite of models was later acquired by a firm in San Antonio, which places it in different venues throughout the year. The signage of the exhibit is in English and Spanish, as the exhibit is quite popular in Mexico.

The lead photo shows Leonardo's concept for a hang glider, where the pilot could adjust the angles of the outer portions of the wings via a system of ropes and pulleys.

Leonardo's concept for a battlefield tankMany of the models rely on ropes and pulleys for a wide variety of potential uses, but the centrepiece of the exhibit is a prototype tank for use on the battlefield. It looks a bit like a wooden UFO. Visitors can enter and see the portals above where lookouts could spy potential targets for the cannons mounted below. In reality it was never built, but tanks did become a lethal reality a hundred years ago in World War I.

 

Fans of Star Wars will especially enjoy the grandfather of C3PO. At first glance it looks like just a suit of armor, but wait a while and a panel on its chest opens to reveal a series of spinning wheels. The suit of armor then moves, seemingly by magic. This first design for a humanoid robot was certainly his most fanciful creation, as there was no obvious way to power it 500 years ago although there is speculation he envisaged making it move by some use of water or weights.

The main display space of the Texas Museum of Science and Technology is devoted to the Leonardo exhibit, which is on display until late January 2018. Well worth the trip to Cedar Park, a small town north of Austin.

Visit their website: txmost.org/current-exhibitions/

 

 

 

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Even now Sicilians have a strong streak of independence from Italy, but in the 18th century it was a barely governable portion of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Both realms had the same king, but he resided in Naples, leaving the nearly impossible job of running Sicily to a Viceroy. This book is about one of those viceroys, Domenico Caracciolo.

 

The author of this intriguing biography, Angus Campbell, sadly died in 2015 at age 76, but his intimate knowledge of the Sicilian experience lives on in these pages. He married a Sicilian and lived in western Sicily for the last 15 years of his life. The subject of his book was born in Spain exactly 300 years before Campbell died, and lived nearly as long as Campbell: 74 years.

 

Campbell quotes an author from 1785 as writing “The Sicilians are looked on as foreigners in Naples; at Court as enemies.” The Court referred to is the royal court of King Ferdinand and his politically savvy wife Maria Carolina, who was to prove a great influence in the life of Caracciolo.

 

The title of the book gives one the expectation of learning how Sicily advanced as the result of Enlightenment ideals, but it is actually a depiction of how entrenched baronial influence made sure most of Caracciolo's reforming zeal was consigned to the graveyard. Essential to change was the full backing of Ferdinand, but he had little interest in politics and rarely offered such support.

 

Campbell tells us the Viceroy from 1755 to 1774 “was much loved by the barons because he elected not to interfere with them.” They likewise hated Caracciolo, who reluctantly took over in 1781, “more than a year after his initial appointment.” He lingered as long as he could in his beloved Paris, where he performed diplomatic duties for the kingdom. The first half of the book details his early life and career in both Paris and London, where he visited silk warehouses with a view to reforming the Sicilian silk manufacturing business. His sensible proposals were blocked by vested interests, just what he encountered 17 years later when he became Viceroy.

 

His greatest legacy turned out to be scientific. “Caracciolo had Giuseppe Piazzi put in charge of the observatory” which was funded by money that came into the government coffers when Caracciolo disbanded the hated Inquisition of the Catholic Church. The author provides no dates or details on this important development, but it was in 1786 that Piazzi was appointed to the chair of Astronomy and charged with the project of setting up an Observatory. The Viceroy did not live to see the astronomical observatory, as he died three years later in his new position as Prime Minister to the King, the most senior government post that Queen Maria Carolina arranged for him to get. Piazzi achieved fame in 1801 by discovering Ceres, the first known asteroid, from the observatory in Palermo.

 

Campbell has given us a wonderfully detailed account of the political and personal machinations of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. This serves as an excellent counterpoint to the well-known memoirs of Lord Acton, a close confidant to Queen Maria Carolina, and a man Caracciolo dealt with as both friend and foe for many years.

 

 

 

Sicily and the Enlightenment: The World of Domenico Caracciolo, Thinker and Reformer. Published by I.B. Tauris (London), $35.

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Few concerts compel one to consult a dictionary, but a Christmas concert held in Austin this week made this a (pleasurable) necessity.

 

The group that is now entering its 25th year of entertaining audiences in Texas is Conspirare, which literally means (in Latin) to breathe together. Artistic Director Craig Johnson made that more than an aspiration as he led a capacity audience at the Long Center in a group breathing exercise. Johnson said Conspirare began in “an intimate, trusting space: a small venue of 150 people.”

 

Trying to recreate that feeling in a venue holding 2,300 was his goal, one that can best be termed conspiration. I will save you from consulting the dictionary by defining this as a joint effort toward a particular end, and its similarity to conspirare is no coincidence. By merging the meaning of these two Latin-root words, Johnson achieved his goal, which was then expressed as “music and poems that speak to each other and speak to us.”

 

The finest example of this during the concert began with a few lines from the great 13th century Persian poet Rumi. It talks of “flowers open every night across the sky.” This segues effortlessly into the 15th century German Advent and Christmas hymn Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming that evokes a “flower bright, amid the cold of winter” thus combining Isaiah's prophecies about a rose and the German folkloric 'cold of winter.' A brilliant combination, but to appreciate the concert one must embrace the congeries of poetry and music presented by Johnson. His own composition, Holding Carol, again evokes the imagery of a flower and days that feel like winter, a chilly notion reinforced later in the concert by the traditional Catalonian carol, The Icy December.

 

The multifarious strands of the concert inevitably had a couple of bumpy transitions, such as the ballad I'll Se Seeing You immediately followed by a traditional Gaelic tune The Rune of Hospitality and then the foot-stomping Big Love. But the seamless segues permeating the concert offered ample compensation in a truly eclectic selection that also showcased the talents of guest artist Carrie Rodriguez, whose fiddle playing ranged from solemn to sassy. This singer-songwriter from Austin closed the concert with a vocal solo on the encore gospel tune Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air. I'm sure many people leaving the Long Center heard music up above as they departed this unusual and uplifting Christmas concert.

 

The beautiful voices of the 24 singing members of Conspirare are supported by Thomas Burritt on percussion and Mitch Watkins on guitar.

 

For more on the concert, please visit the website:

 

https://conspirare.org/event/conspirare-christmas-2017/

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Belles, a new production of a play celebrating its 10th year, is currently spreading holiday cheer at The City Theatre in Austin. To paraphrase a line in the play itself, this is a Class A Southern Comedy.

According to one character, "Laughter is the only medicine we can afford that doesn't come from Canada." The laughter created by the play is infectious, but since this is a Christmas play that is a good thing.

There are 11 members in this ensemble cast, each of whom portray their roles with aplomb. No easy matter, as the dialogue and plot are so outrageous. The play is opened by a real spitfire actress, Nikki Bora, whose character of Miss Geneva is the nexus around which the prime plotline revolves. A portrayal worthy of an award.

Her nemesis in the play is Honey Raye Futrelle, portrayed with endearing and vexatious qualities in equal measure by Christina Manley. As the lead photo shows, Honey Raye is none too happy with Miss Geneva, who eventually proves to be her saviour in the production of a Christmas play by the small Texas town's Tabernacle of the Lamb church. This play within a play serves as a foil for an unending sequence of disasters of Biblical proportions, thus giving the other members of the play the opportunity to shine: Cassidy Timms, Beau Paul, Dawn Erin, R. Michael Clinkscales, Giselle Marie Munoz, Robyn Gammill, Ty Wylie, Brent Rose and Danielle Bondurant. The second photo shows a silly moment as Brother Justin (Wylie), dressed as a reindeer, confides his Christmas wish to Santa (Clinkscales).

One member of the audience told me that having lived in Texas for several years, he clearly saw the resemblance between some of the characters and true life. The play (by the powerhouse trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten), is so unsophisticated it was enjoyable, but no so unsophisticated it became corny. A true delight, and one I highly recommend for a fine Austin Christmas.

Finally, kudos to Scout Gutzmerson for a fine job in her first stage costuming credit.

 

Performances run through Dec. 30, 2017. For more info visit the website: www.citytheatreaustin.org

Photo credit: Aleks Ortynski.

 

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The most delightful Christmas confection of the season is not a gingerbread house but a play currently being performed at the Austin Playhouse.

 

Written by Lauren Gunderson (the most produced living playwright in America) and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley made its world premiere in 2016, and has already become a staple with theatre companies all over the country.

 

With a legion of Jane Austen fans to support it, that is not too surprising. Her book Pride and Prejudice is one of the most iconic bestsellers of all time. The play is an imagined sequel, set two years after the book in Mr. Darcy's home of Pemberley, featuring the gaggle of Bennett sisters in a whole new set of marital travails.

 

The year is 1815, and with a beautiful set consisting of a drawing room and library by designer Mike Toner, and period costumes by Buffy Manners, one feels very much in the moment.

 

The play centers around Mary Bennett (played by Jess Hughes), the only one of the sisters to remain unmarried, and her unexpected love interest, Arthur (Stephen Mercantel).

 

Jess Hughes and Stephen MercantelMy only quibble is with the visual portrayal of Mary. In the promotional photo Mary is shown wearing glasses, rightly making her appear very bookish. It would have been more in keeping with her character to have her wear glasses during the play.

 

Elizabeth, star of the book and wife of Mr. Darcy, is sensibly played by Jenny Lavery; Maria Latiolais as Lydia is given a cloyingly wonderful stage presence, and Marie Fahlgren brings to the pregnant Jane just the sort of empty-headed but lovable persona Austen fans expect. And of course sister Mary, who (as one sister says) casts of 'chill of inaccuracy' over every conversation. The cast is completed by Samuel Knowlton who gives us the quintessential Mr Darcy, his brother-in-law Charles (Zac Thomas) who seems blissfully happy with his wife Jane, and Katie Kohler as the control freak Anne, who has her own designs on Arthur.

 

As the title of the play suggests, the time is Christmas, and Elizabeth becomes a trend-setter by placing a tree in the drawing room. The myth is that Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert introduced this German tradition to England in the 1840s, but it was actually done by King George III's wife Queen Charlotte in 1800. Even so, very few people would have decorated their homes with a tree in 1815, so it is no wonder everyone who enters the drawing room remarks on why a tree is indoors.

 

Mary, who wails that she “still suffers from a lack of definition,” finds a kindred spirit in the socially challenged Arthur. Mercantel's portrayal of this character is eminently believable, which is critical to the success of the production as he is the pivotal character. Who he chooses to marry – Anne or Mary – is the angst-driven engine that powers this play to a conclusion that even its characters describe as “shock and wonder.”

 

Mercifully absent from the play are the moralistic tones that seem to characterise many of the plays set in this era. This is one of the most innocently enjoyable plays I have seen in a quite a while. A superb production with delightfully quirky characters portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast, this is a Christmas treat to be savoured by all theatre-lovers in Austin.

 

Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley is playing until Dec. 23. Visit the website for tickets:

www.austinplayhouse.com

 

 

 

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The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev has been in and out of fashion in Western musical circles for decades, but for now he is definitely IN. The Austin Symphony Orchestra is offering a rousing rendition of his famous Symphony No. 5 this weekend.

 

Prokofiev, who died in 1953, is being portrayed live on stage during the first half of the multimedia event, in a production created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Conceived in 2005, they have now created 30 so-called 'Beyond the Score' presentations that give the audience a cultural and musical background to some of the world's most iconic scores.

 

Here Yevgeniy Sharlat spoke the words of Prokofiev. He was joined on stage by Robert Faires as the narrator, Barbara Chisholm as the composer's wife, and David Long who represented several composers. The symphony joined in by performing brief excerpts of his major compositions, as a chronological survey of his life was shown on a big screen. His peripatetic life as a composer and pianist, from Russia to the United States, on to France , back to the U.S. and finally returning to Russia, is given as a welcome textural background to his work.

 

In the dialogue, Prokofiev describes his Symphony No. 5 as a tribute to man's mighty powers, and this Promethean inspiration is expressed in music that brings to mind roiling magma. Each burst of a lava bubble is marked by the clashing of cymbals in the first movement.

 

The second movement is quite different, redolent of a busy metropolis filled with streetcars and pedestrians. The frenetic pace of city life may not have been what the composer intended, but it would make a good soundtrack to a silent film about New York City in the 20s.

 

The third movement most closely conforms to what Soviet officialdom demanded from its composers in the 1940s. It has a searching quality to it, expressing lost innocence: not surprising as the Motherland was still battling Nazi forces as Prokofiev wrote this in the winter of 1943-44. It is not a plaintive melody so much as a soul-searching attempt at redemption which seems to be fulfilled in a sweet and tender ending.

 

The fourth and final movement has a sprightly, almost Carnivalesque exuberance. It reminds one of music from his 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges with its “charming capriciousness” in the words of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht.

 

One of the touchstone recordings of the 5th is by Leonard Bernstein. The tempo by the Austin Symphony was too fast in comparison, thus minimising the full dramatic effect Bernstein achieved, especially in the 3rd movement. Nonetheless an excellent introduction to this great symphony for the Austin scene.

 

The Austin Symphony will be giving Bernstein a great birthday present next year, to celebrate his centennial. His Mass will be performed June 29 and June 30, preceded by a suite of free events for the public who can learn about this extraordinary musical extravaganza. It begins with a 100th birthday bash at the Bullock Museum on Jan. 7, 2018. Visit the website for details:

http://www.bernstein100austin.org/calendar-of-events/

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