Sips from the Firehose

Dec 13

Year-end Prediction Season Begins (with a look back)

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense.
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At the end of every year, magazines, newspapers, pundits and chuckleheaded bloggers like me all do what we used to call “thumbsuckers” back in my old newspapering days. We kick our feet back on our desks, stare up at the stained asbestos-laced soundbrick ceiling and pretend that we have some special powers of insight & prediction.

Mostly, it’s an excuse to churn out a weekly column without having to try to get people on the phone for an interview during the holiday season.

With that in mind, let’s check out a blast from the past – I chose the predictions made in Fortune magazine back in 2004, at the very height of the artificial subprime boom market, as a means of demonstrating how off-base we can be.

First, there’s the cover story itself:


Remember, this was right after Google had had its fabled rocket-like IPO, and not so long after it had been on the auction block to the much larger & entrenched rival Yahoo! for about $1Bn. All us dot-bomb 1.0 refugees were still a little stunned & dazed from the implosion, and the utter skepticism of financial markets towards anything in the tech sector had not yet been hit by the Apple iPhone/app store wrecking ball.

So maybe they were justified in saying galactically stupid things like: “Far from hailing Google as the next eBay or even the next Microsoft (search the web on that phrase and Google’s name does come up), the skeptics see Google as just the latest dot-com-bubble stock”


“For all its impressive technology and verve, Google, as noted earlier, has no such clear competitive advantage [as Microsoft then did]. That ma help explain why – as was true during the late, great dot-com bubble – many insiders are rushing for the exits. Three top executives, engineering chief Wayne Rossing, general counsel David Drummond, and HR chief Shona Brown, said in SEC filings at the end of November that they had sold blocks of stock worth millions of dollars.”


“Google seems well positioned to repeat or even exceed that impressive corporate performance. Just don’t bet the rent money on it.”

Obviously, the trauma of the dot-com collapse persisted, even four years later. How long is the much larger, deeper, and more far-reaching real-estate & banking collapse going to linger, I wonder?

Moving on, here’s what Fortune picked as some of the best new products of the year:



That’s right. It’s a phone where you dial the number using an iPod clickwheel, and where you twist the body of the phone around so you can see yourself in a mirror. Or something.

Actual quote: “Good design is about knowing what to leave out. Nokia left out the dialing pad […] place your call via speech recognition.”

Good consumer purchasing decision are about not buying fuckwitted designs. Looking at this, the GPS watch (Ooo! Find yourself on Everest!) and the transvaginal ultrasound-looking vacuum cleaner, I gotta wonder exactly what the criteria were to pick a product as “Best.” Was it really about being something that millions/billions would find useful, or was it just about compiling a list of niche products that nobody heard of that make you look smart? (Not that I am immune to such impulses myself. Ahem.)

Finally, the big ad on the back cover says a lot about the tone & tenor of the times:


Yeah, that’s right. A Hummer. Shown here as a “sport utility truck”. The best trend in Los Angeles is that the spike in gas prices has meant that there are fewer and fewer of these absurd road pigs clogging up the highways, weaving erratically in and out of lanes as the narcissist behind the wheel tries to work the scroll wheel on his Nokia phone to call the mortgage broker to buy another dozen or so “investment properties” out in Rancho Cucamonga.

Ah, irrational bubbles. It seems like everything will work, pretty much because there’s so much crazy money flying around the economy, that nothing is too stupid not to find a desperate buyer. As opposed to the current economic climate, where it seems like nothing will work, because even the most brilliant new innovation struggles to find backing.

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Sep 07

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Posted: under Foodstuffs.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The goats got frisky, the herdsmen were convinced, but the monks initially disapproved … papyrus reeds scattered on the floor and thick incense to keep the bugs away … “Red Bull and Jolt Cola have got nothin’ on this rocket fuel” … the third round of coffee toasts is Baraka, and that’s the one that has all the luck in it … the original genetic line, preserved in the ancient monasteries …  

young girl brewing coffee

The thick incense here was initially annoying, until I figured out that it was handy to keep the mosquitoes away. I was told that the papyrus rushes on the floor are actually getting kinda hard to find.

Legend has it that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia when a herdsman from the Kaffa region noticed that when his goats ate the berries off a particular bush, they got really frisky and ecstatic, dancing around on their hind legs. He took the cherry (a quirk of coffee: the plural and singular for the raw berries are the same: “cherry”) to the local monks, who condemned it as sinful and tossed it into the fire. Well, in the fire, the cherry split open and people started “waking up and smelling the coffee” as it were. They raked the roasted beans out of the coals, crushed them up and put them in boiling water to distill out the essence – a process that in its basic steps, really hasn’t changed over the millennia.

young man  makes coffee

The other students were making fun of this poor guy for doing “woman’s work.”  The student kind of reddened at this, but kept on with his duty. In the lower left, you see the popcorn; in some of the videos, you can see the giant round of bread and the roasted barley.

Over the centuries, the ceremonial sharing of coffee has become a Really Big Deal; I was honored to be invited to a number of these ceremonies, which, in the smaller villages, are held three times a day, and all the important people in the village show up to trade gossip about who did what to whom, argue over politics and haggle over the price of everything from a new donkey, to a batch of prepaid scratch-off phone cards. As one of the objects of curiosity at these ceremonies, I learned to ignore all the people sneaking up behind me to have their friends surreptitiously snap cellphone photos of themselves posing to show how tall I am. (One of my students tried to teach me the Amharic phrase for “Albino giraffe”, (Quach’ne shasho) which was apparently one of my nicknames. Well, at least it wasn’t “Albino hippo” or something even worse.)

Anyway, the ceremony starts with the scattering of papyrus reeds on the floor and the burning of strong, sweet incense. A young girl dressed in a traditional white dress with colorful woven borders, sits on a stool, next to a clay brazier filled with heavy chunks of charcoal. She washed a handful of beans in the heated pan, and then shakes away the husks. When the beans have been roasted to shiny blackness, she grinds them up with a mortar and long-handled pestle. The grind is pretty uneven – it varies all the way from powdery espresso-type to coarse French Press consistency, all in the same batch. The maiden slowly stirs the ground-up coffee into a “jebena” which is a round-bottomed black pottery coffee pot, with a straw lid.

Depending on how strong the girl is, and how enthusiastic she was about grinding up the beans with the pestle, you can get some pretty murky coffee. It is strained a couple of time through a sieve, but still, if you are getting the cups from the bottom of the jebena, you are getting what my Uncle Pete used to call “Navy coffee, where if you stick a spoon into it, it stands straight up.”

In the video below, you can see some of my students doing the coffee ceremony. A lot of the guys were teasing the male students who were working hard to fan the stubborn charcoal into life. “This is a real post-feminist ceremony here – we have the men doing all the work, while the women get to lean back and laugh,” said one student. I gave him props for using the phrase “post-feminist”, while my other students reddened under the good-natured needling.

Here’s a little gallery of videos showing the above coffee ceremony (click on the links, and the video will open up in a player):

coffee ceremony1

coffee ceremony2

coffee ceremony3

In Addis Ababa, the participants in the coffee ceremonies loaded up their tiny china cups with spoon after spoon of sugar; to the point where, when one of them prepped a cup for me, the coffee was almost syrupy and chewy. Reminded me of some of the Turkish coffee I had in Georgia and Azerbaijan, where the combined caffeine and sugar one tiny cup would jack you up all morning. Red Bull and Jolt Cola have got nothin’ on this rocket fuel.

Out in the countryside, the participants in the coffee ceremony use salt instead of sugar, which is a real acquired taste, I must say. I had to gulp down a whole litre of water during one ceremony, because the combination of caffeine and salt was making my mouth as dry as the Harar desert.

Traditionally, roasted barley, popcorn, peanuts or small cookies are also served; passed around on big platters, you are expected to take a handful and use them to soak up all the caffeine singing in your belly. The barley is actually pretty tasty; in the morning ceremonies, I kinda felt like I was having dry cereal. Also, the incense that I kinda cursed for making my eyes itch in Addis, I found myself praising out in the countryside, because at least it chased away the clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies.

Serving the coffee is very much a not-so-subtle reminder of social ranking; the eldest and most powerful in the village are served first, and then after that, in descending order. As the visiting ferengi, I was kind of a wild card; in some places, they tried to serve me first, in others, they ostentatiously passed me by to pour coffee into the tiny cups of people on the other side of the room.

And yes, the coffee was good. It was not like the smoothed-out, characterless drivel that is shoveled out of chain coffee shops, or (shudder) drooled out of urns in Quickie Mart truck stops across the U.S. The coffee served in these ceremonies is intense and has an almost wine-like flavor; it sticks with you for a while.

The ceremony traditionally has three rounds – the coffee is seved in shotglass-sized cups, so it’s not like drinking American-style coffee in municipal-stadium  sized mugs, where you get ½ litre at a gulp. The first rounds is called Abol, and it’s when everyone murmurs compliments to how good the coffee is, how nice the ceremony is, etc.

coffee plants on sacred island

These are the coffee plants that grow wild all over these islands.

The next round is Tona, and that’s when people usually get down to the serious business of dickering. Maybe it’s the caffeine here that loosens everyone’s tongues, but I have noticed that Ethiopians really like to argue. A lot. Not violently (at least, not that I ever witnessed), but at these ceremonies, the discussions were what politicians and negotiators call a “frank and open sharing of views.”

The last round of coffee is the most important, and to leave before it is considered a grave insult. It’s called “Baraka” and it is the one that supposedly contains the good luck and blessing in it. By this point, the business discussions are usually entering their end stages, the elders have adopted their usual scowls, and the last round is greeted with more praise for the maiden serving it.

I have brought back with me a couple of kilos of the rare coffee from the monasteries out on Tana Lake. These are unroasted, and I hope to bring them to the local coffee experts to roast and sample, to see if there is anything truly remarkable about them. Supposedly, since they are from plants that have been isolated on these islands for nearly a thousand years, the coffee has a flavor and characteristic that has been lost by the plants on the mainland, that have been crossbred, hybridized, and thus, bastardized from the original genetic line.


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Jul 11

Bahir Dar Photo Gallery

Posted: under Uncategorized.
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I found a draft version of this post on my computer, and can’t believe that I forgot to finally update it. Sheesh.

Anyway folks, here are some more of the photos from my recent stint in Ethiopia. Hope you enjoy. Coming up next: a detailed description of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

First, here is a shot I took while out in the countryside – the guy on the roof here looks like he’s just casually listening in to an interesting conversation. In reality, he was a total daredevil. When the van was in motion, he sat on the roof, clinging to the big package that you see strapped on to the cargo carrier. I’m not sure if he was doing that to try to keep the package steady on the roof, or if by riding outside the passenger compartment, maybe he got a break on the fare. Or maybe he just like the feel of the wind of the open road in his hair. Whatever – by his clothes, he didn’t look in that desperate financial shape … certainly not as bad as the kids I saw clamping on to the spare tire carriers on the backs of SUVs for a free ride (often with tragic results).

Sometimes the passengers choose to ride on the roofs of the ubiquitous blue minivans that are the backbone of the public transportation system in Ethiopia.

Anyway, the next shot is taken from the tour of the ancient monasteries in Lake Tana. I actually got to handle some of the illuminated manuscripts – a real honor, I guess. These are the types of things that I am accustomed to only seeing under glass, in heavily guarded cases, in museums.

It was a strange feeling to handle something this old and this precious. Then again, the monks didn’t really seem all that put out by the experience. I guess when you’ve grown up in an area where human history goes back 3 million years, something that’s only a few thousand years old isn’t all that remarkable.

It is amazing how vibrant the colors still are in this book.


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Jun 10

Bahir Dar Monasteries: Part 2

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Here are some more of the photos I shot when I was visiting the ancient monasteries out on the isolated islands of Lake Tana.

This first shot is the typical tourist shot, I know. The murals and tapestries here date back to about the 16th century, although there are earlier paintings and artwork.

dave lafontaine posing with the crutch-chairs in the bahir dar monasteries

Yeah, I know I kinda look like Long John Silver here, being stared at by all the little angels painted on the walls. The Ethiopian Orthodox churches do not allow you to sit, so the congregation has to lean on these sort-of crutches.

The artwork here shows the influence of all the cultures that have touched Ethiopia over the centuries.

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Jun 08

Ancient Monasteries of Bahir Dar: Part 1

Posted: under Online Video.
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Scattered throughout the vast Bahir Dar Lake are seven sacred islands, each home to an ancient monastery, where monks still live in seclusion and contemplation

monastery and monk on sacred island

The foundation to this building is ancient; the superstructure was built after it was burned/destroyed. The top part shows the influence of the Portuguese Jesuits of the 16th century, a particularly bloody period in the religious wars that have swept over Ethiopia with regularity. The cheerful guy in yellow to the right in the picture is the learned monk who cares for the priceless documents and treasures locked in the basement. There are also caves winding underneath this island; natural lava tubes that were used as retreats for the hermits - and are still used for that purpose today.

The lake is the source of the Blue Nile (more pictures on that in a bit), and just getting to the islands required a long boat trip through very rough waters. The bow kept getting swamped, and I was soaked to the bone by the time we made landfall. Apparently, the winds kick up in the afternoon, which is why there are so few (as in none) that will go out on tourism missions at that time. However, I had spent an extremely frustrating morning wrestling with the laissez-faire attitudes at Ethiopian Airlines (where the offices are rarely open to the public, apparently), so I wasn’t entirely in control of when I went.

Anyway, at the periphery of the island is a weathered stone dock. There used to be big tires as bumpers, but the local kids have swiped these and use them as toys.

To get to the sacred places, it’s a half-hour hike, all up steep and winding paths, paved with jagged volcanic rocks, through dense undergrowth that is dotted with ancient coffee bushes.

boy on way to get water

I met this boy on the path. He said that he makes the trip three times a day lugging this 5-gallon jerrycan to get water from the lake. Where I had to carefully pick my way, even wearing thick-soled shoes, he was as nimble as a mountain goat. I will post a video of our conversation in a bit.

More about those later.

The islands are inhabited by people who scratch out a living from the combination of fishing and selling souvenirs to the rare tourists who show up here. I was impressed by the fact that the first few stalls that we passed by were empty – but by the time we made our way to the top of the hills, the locals had rushed down and arranged rows of their little treasures and were desperate to sell to the lone ferengi (foreigner) who had stumbled across their little island on a Thursday afternoon.

The first monastery I went to was built in a circular shape; it symbolizes the nature of eternity. That everything goes in a circle, unbroken, with no beginning and no end.

There are 12 entrances to the monastery, one for each of the apostles. The paintings are a fascinating insight into the layers of history that have washed over this place, and left their marks.

The original paintings and carvings date back to the 1200s (or perhaps earlier), when the forces of Islam started disobeying the commandments of Mohammed and embarked on a campaign of burning and destroying Christian churches. This would not be the last time this happened. The monks, desperate to preserve their sacred writings – bibles that date back to the 4th century or so – fled to the highlands here, and out into the monasteries on this lake, where they could hide from the conquering hordes.

Among the treasures that they brought up to this region was the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Yeah, the thing that Indiana Jones used to melt the faces of a bunch of Nazis back in 1937. And no, there is not a giant warehouse where it is stored, along with a crystal skull or any other such nonsense (or so says my long-suffering guide).

On top of the monastery is a peculiar decoration – ironwork, festooned with ostrich eggs, which apparently symbolize fertility and rebirth. I’ll get to the amazing artworks that decorate the walls in the next post.

Meanwhile, the legend is that the monk who founded the first monastery (see in the first picture, above) was living in a cave, minding his own business. Like you do when you are a monk. Only the locals kept having sacrifices to a giant python that they worshiped. He came storming out of the cave and (as legend has it) called on god, did some angry preaching, and the giant python croaked on the spot. Which kinda impresses the locals, when you kill their pagan god and all. So they all converted and the monk figured he might as well build something on the spot over the caves where he’d been hanging out (better ventilation, some sunshine now and again, maybe even a chimney).

ornament on top of monastery

This bit of decoration features ostrich eggs at the ends of the spikes. Not sure if the eggs are petrified, hollowed out, or these are just replicas. I'm guessing they aren't still real, or they'd be rotten away by now & need frequent replacement, especially in this heat. The ornate spray of metal curlicues around the cross has a distinct meaning to those who know; the circle motif in the center is apparently a mark of Axum.



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Jun 03

Growing Pains: Daredevil Construction and the Future of Ethiopia

Posted: under Uncategorized.
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Africa’s fastest-growing economy balances between dreams of the future and the shackles of the past

For those libertarians who feel that OSHA and any and all regulations on workplace safety are the very essence of neo-Stalinism, I submit the construction industry in modern Ethiopia. Please note that the scaffolding supporting this multi-story concrete building is basically lashed-together sapling trunks, and that while the workers are all wearing hardhats, the basic safety equipment you routinely see on construction sites in the West is pretty much lacking – no safety lines, no walkie-talkies to communicate with the crane operator, no nets or wind barriers at the periphery. Feel free to apply for a gig here, fellas.

building under construction at addis ababa university

This picture was taken under the baking-hot noonday African sun. The bucketful of cement on the way up seems to arrive at irregular intervals, and sometimes much to the surprise of the workers on the roof. I saw one bucket swing a little wildly and clip a guy off his feet. A little lower and to the side, and he would have been spread across the roof like grisly human jam on unyielding toast. (Click to enlarge)

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May 28

State of Media in East Africa: “Mover and Shakers” Interview for AfroFM

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

UPDATE: The first video below was erroneously a duplicate of video #3. I blame the shoddy connection I had – I am thrilled that the videos made it up to YouTube at all, frankly, and it took me an hour and several tried to get this post to publish, so I had some version-control issues. Anyway, I’ve fixed it so that vid #1 is now the proper first part, in which we talk about the persistent power of radio.

The more I learn about how the media operates in East Africa, the more I think this is going to be a fascinating area to watch over the next few years. The conditions here are ripe for some really interesting changes – we are going to see in this microcosm what the effects are of empowering a population that is still stuck with only one-way information flow (largely via radio – please see video #1, below) to suddenly leapfrog into the ubiquitous mobile web-fueled connectivity that we see in places like Japan, Korea and (to an extent) China.

BACKGROUND: A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with the CEO of Fana Broadcasting. At that time, I was told that the plan was to install 4G mobile connectivity throughout the country. I have since learned that the contract looks like it is going to be awarded to a giant Chinese telecom company. This is not necessarily good news. The suspicion among the journalists is that the infrastructure contract has been given to the Chinese because they have pledged to include many of the down-and-dirty spyware and censorship features that are common to the internet behind the Great Firewall of China. Also: it is rumored that the Chinese outbid US and European companies for this huge contract, because the government of China is (illegally?) subsidizing the work, secretly funneling money under the table to the ostensibly private-sector telecom company, to allow it to do billions of dollars of work for 1/20th the price. Conspiracy theories abound here; in the absence of any hard facts or verification, people always assume the worst.

At any rate: the plan is to wire up all the major cities and towns with 4G wireless internet service. One of the big reasons expressed for that is that the Powers that Be have noticed that on just about every roof, you can see a satellite dish. Those dishes are bringing news, information and TV programs into households from TV providers outside of Ethiopia. They want to jump-start their own domestic news and entertainment industry, to start to produce high-quality content, to lure audience away from these international sources. Part of this is to foster a sense of national unity: to expose Ethiopians to news, movies and TV series that star Ethiopians, speaking Amharic, and referring to matters that are of concern to Ethiopians (and eventually, to citizens of the surrounding countries, none of which really has their own video/web content production infrastructure). Part of it is to start building up the kind of media-production capabilities that might allow Ethiopia to start exporting its culture to the international marketplace; from what I have seen here, there is certainly an opportunity for the kind of smart, dedicated artists here to start changing the international perception of this place, which is still stuck in the famine years.

Anyway, in the first part of the interviews I did with Samson Tesfaye, for his show “Movers and Shakers” on AfroFM, we talk about what things are like in the present day – where the vast majority of the rural populations in Ethiopia still rely on what they hear over the radio as their main (perhaps only) source of news and information.

The next part of the interview, we focus on the impact of social media in East Africa. At this time, Sami says that social media is not having the kind of disruptive effects we see in North Africa, where the Arab Spring is still very much alive and kicking, or to the south in Kenya, where the technology scene is vibrant and lively.

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May 02

In need of coffee in Ethiopia

Posted: under Uncategorized.

Something that will make people of a certain age nostalgic:


Pull-Tab soda cans.

Some part of me wants to collect all the tabs and weave them together into a glittering metal vest … If you recall, the hippies used to do this, back when recycling was still this strange, exotic concept.

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Apr 21

Russian Street Portraitists and Afghan War Vets

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We’re supposed to be at the LA Times Festival of Books today, but we’re having to skip that amazing opportunity to mingle with other ink-stained wretches (and the agents who *love* them), and instead finish up on the editing work on our own … er … somewhat overdue writing projects.

What is the world coming to when we have to sacrifice valuable drinking and goofing off time to actually meet deadlines, I ask?

In the meantime, here are a few shots from our travels in Moscow. We ran across these artists outside of the Moscow flea markets, doing portraits of the passers-by for a few thousand rubles. I was struck by how familiar the scene was … I’ve seen this in Caracas, Mexico City, San Francisco, Amsterdam … I’m convinced that if I ever do get to Antarctica, I will find a couple of artsy Emperor Penguins sitting on director’s chairs, working with mixed-medium herring guts and rancid walrus blubber. Which will no doubt immediately get snapped up by a hipster art collector and spawn the Next Big Wave in the art world…


Russian artists painting portraits in the street

There is a strange timeless quality that comes out when you walk the streets of Eastern Europe. The past is still very much with everyone there - such as the guy in suspenders, who looks like he walked right out of a 70s "glorious proletariat" propaganda movie, where he plays the crusty, but lovable truckdriver whose antics lead to much hilarity,

I tried to get a little fancier with this next shot – to sort of show how this art is a little piece of life and humanity, even in sometimes grim, gray surroundings.

Russian street artists are watched by the work

In Moscow, art looks at you. (click to see full-size)

If you look at the guys in the background, they wouldn’t really look out of place at the Harley ralley in Sturgis. But there are a lot of kinda sketchy-looking guys like this roaming the streets of Moscow. I was told that a lot of them were veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, or of the more recent conflict in Chechnya. Anyone who’s been around a VA hospital here in the States will have an eerie shock of familiarity looking at these guys; long hair, still wearing the odds and ends of their camouflage uniforms, too-intense eyes that don’t blink enough, and a constant sense of suppressed rage…

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Jan 11

Panorama Experiments

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Just playing around with some of the photos I’ve shot over the years – this one is a panorama of the city of Tbilisi, Georgia. It’s an amazing town – ancient and modern, and at the time this photo was taken, baking at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

a panoramic view of the city of Tbilisi, Georgia

The statue barely visible in the distance is the goddess of Tbilisi; she greets you with a cup of wine, if you are a friend. The sword, if you are not. (click to embiggen)

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