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10/2/08

A special place?

Though I have not read his works, Guillermo Gonzalez is an Intelligent Design supporter who wrote a book called 'The Privileged Planet'. The basic premise behind this book, as I understand it, is that the Earth holds a special place in the universe which makes it uniquely conducive to scientific discoveries.

There is a theory that explains the apparent acceleration of the universe's expansion through a void of matter in our local region. According to this article, this theory thus far could not be distinguished from the dark matter theory by experiment, but that may change in the future.

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It is interesting to see how assumptions that we don't hold a special place in the universe can disrupt viable theories as much as assumptions that we do in all ways hold a special place. It was a mistake to think that the sun revolved around the earth, and we now know that what we observe is much better explained by a heliocentric model. But being mistaken in one (or more instances) does not mean we should always assume we are not in a special place. Nor should we always assume we are. I think the theist is in a unique position here. For the atheist, it would seem strange and improbable that we should be in an atypical place in the universe. For the theist, however, it is an open question. In some ways our location may be typical, in other ways atypical. We simply don't know until we look.

Important note: I'm not suggesting that the void explanation mentioned holds any value or merit over dark matter. It's just an idea for now, with no evidence that I'm aware of to distinguish it. I mention it merely as a springboard for discussion, and as an interesting look into the future directions astrophysics may take.

24 comments:

  1. Okay, just to put it briefly. Viewing our planet as 'priveleged' is androcentric. Humans like to believe that we are the purposeful result of something. When we say, "well, look how unlikely it is for us to exist. If the planet or the constructs of the universe were any different, then we would not exist. That couldn't just happen by chance," we are essentially saying that, unless someone wanted us to be here, then it would be impossible. Instead, you should look at it this way: the only reason we exist is because the conditions were such that life would occur. Just like the conditions on Venus are such that it produces a unique climate found no where else in the universe. It isn't that the Earth was positioned for their to be life, it is that life is merely a phenomenal function of those conditions. Life maybe unique, but no more unique than the storms on Venus or the orbit of Pluto. Just a function of the conditions, the conditions are not a function of life.

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  2. Look, the Earth is not 'priveleged.' That term implies that the conditions of Earth are such that life exists; as if life was an intended function of the conditions. Rather, life is a function of the conditions of Earth; just like the unique storms on Venus are a function of Venus' conditions. If Earth were positioned otherwise or the universe composed of different elements, then some other unique phenomenon would exist as a function of those conditions. The phenomenon of life is no different than the phenomenon of Pluto's orbit. It is merely a physical consequence of the conditions of Earth. As humans, though, we like to think that life is greater than any other phenomenon; but its not. If you were a storm on Venus and you were conscious, then you would probably think that Venus was positioned such that you must exist. Earth's conditions are not a function of life, life is a consequence of the 'random' (by which, I mean purposeless) conditions of earth.

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  3. price:

    your reply does really beg the question though.
    "the only reason we exist is because the conditions were such that life would occur"

    Why is that?

    Peace

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  4. The physical laws of our universe is the answer at the bottom.

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  5. price,

    You make it sound as though you just need to get together the conditions required by life and, "presto!", life occurs. That's an assumption that's unwarranted, and the complexity of the cell, along with failure of current theories, does not support such an assumption. It is only a warranted assumption if you first presume atheism.

    Now if you would re-read the post, this is not specifically about life being conducive to the existence of life, but rather being uniquely positioned for other reasons as well, such as enabling certain scientific discoveries possible no-where else.

    "If you were a storm on Venus and you were conscious, then you would probably think that Venus was positioned such that you must exist."

    First you're talking about life, now you're talking about consciousness. Again, you make it sound like consciousness is something that just appears when simple conditions are met. Do you have any evidence for this assumption? What other things do you ascribe consciousness to?

    As I've linked to before, please consider the firing squad analogy in this article:
    http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/barrow.html

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  6. Croath,

    That firing squad analogy is epically bad. The condemned man existed before he faced the firing squad, and his existence did not depend on facing future bad marksmen.

    Craig writes:

    We should he surprised that we do observe features of the universe which are compatible with our existence.

    Absolutely not.

    That we observe features of the universe compatible with life is what we would expect to find.

    A puddle in a pot-hole should not marvel that the shape of the pot-hole fits the puddle.

    Humans evolved in this universe. We fit the universe, not the other way around.

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  7. Unbeguiled,

    Merely pointing out a difference in an analogy is not sufficient to show that it is 'epically' bad. Why is this difference relevant? I can't see it.

    The analogy is meant to show a very simple point - sometimes our being in a position to observe something *is* something that needs explaining. Usually when a person faces a firing squad, they die. If they find themselves alive after the guns are fired, this is a very real question that needs answering - why am I still here in a position to observe that I am alive? Analogies to puddles don't help here.

    Now, you object to William Craig's claim that we should be surprised about our being here. I wonder, why do you think atheists like Richard Dawkins propose many universes to account for the apparent fine-tuning of our universe, if they think that there is nothing here to wonder about? I say it's precisely because our being here *does* need an explanation. His explanation is that there are very many universes, so there should be one somewhere with creatures like ourselves who are in a position to observe it. We just happen to be those creatures. Notice, though, how this explanation depends on positing 'very many universes'?

    I contend that you are wrong to say that there is nothing here to explain.

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  8. Croath,

    Like another moderator here, you seem to want me to defend positions I do not hold. I find that very strange.

    Back to Craig. In that link he says that the fact that the universe has the features it does is "enormously improbable". But how does he know that?

    His sample size is exactly one. With a sample size of one, all you can say about probabilities is that they are not zero.

    Suppose I have exactly one zebra available for me to examine. The zebra has twenty stripes. What do I know about the probability of zebras having twenty stripes? Only that it is not zero.

    For all I know, maybe all zebras have twenty stripes. Maybe only a half, or 10%.

    The probability may be one, less than one, but not zero.

    What if I claimed that the likelihood of zebras having twenty stripes was "enormously improbable" based on my observation of one zebra?

    If Craig had only one zebra, and that zebra had twenty stripes, he would say that zebras with twenty stripes are "enormously improbable".

    We have only one universe to examine. There may be others, who knows?

    We can say only one thing about the the probability of our universe having the features that it does: it is not zero.

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  9. I contend that you are wrong to say that there is nothing here to explain.

    Well, I don't contend that there is nothing to explain.

    I do contend that all we can say about the probability of a universe having features that allows life is that it is not zero.

    I do contend that we should not be surprised to find such features in the universe we evolved in.

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  10. Merely pointing out a difference in an analogy is not sufficient to show that it is 'epically' bad. Why is this difference relevant? I can't see it.

    OK, I will elaborate.

    In the analogy, the supposedly unlikely features of our universe are analogous to the unlikely poor marksmenship of the shooters.

    Life on earth is analogous to the condemned man.

    So, the condemned man is properly surprised when all his would-be executioners miss.

    But should we be surprised that the universe has features that allow life to evolve? No.

    The condemned man did not evolve to fit a situation of good or bad marksmanship. He just got lucky. His prior life and existence did not depend on facing future poor or good marksmanship.

    But life on earth is absolutely dependent on the particular environment of the earth. Life evolved on earth, to fit the earth.
    We fit the environment, not the other way around.

    The condemned man did not evolve under the selective pressure of good marksmanship. If he did, he would have been small, or camouflaged, or particularly dodgy. If his ancestors evolved under that selective pressure, he would not be surprised to not get shot.

    This really comes down to Craig not understanding that life evolves under selective pressure to fit the environment. The condemned man's ancestors did not have that selective pressure.

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  11. unbeguiled,

    Why do you write three responses instead of one?

    Anyway, it's quite clear that you haven't paid attention to the context of the discussion. You know that Craig is talking about the fine-tuning of the physical constants of the universe, yet you then go on to talk about life on Earth fitting the environment in which it finds itself. These are two very separate topics. The universe being fine-tuned for life says nothing about whether its being on a particular planet is something special or not. The question is whether we should be surprised to find a universe fine tuned to the existence of life - not whether we should be surprised we're here on Earth, fitting to the environment.

    When you say,
    "This really comes down to Craig not understanding that life evolves under selective pressure to fit the environment."
    you're doing an injustice to Craig, who was talking about the fine-tuning of the physical constants, and not life evolving on Earth.

    One objection to the fine tuning argument is that we should not be surprised or astonished that we are here to observe it: because if it were not such that it could support life, we would not be here to remark on it. The firing squad example establishes one simple point: that sometimes a situation does occur in which we wouldn't be around to observe it if it hadn't, yet we still ought to be astonished that we are there to observe it. That is all. Your comments on life being dependent on the environment of earth are irrelevant to destroying this simple point.

    "His sample size is exactly one. With a sample size of one, all you can say about probabilities is that they are not zero."

    I don't think we can accept this. Imagine that an astronomer named Fred Blogs comes up with a scientific method to deduce the location of all the stars in our universe - merely from the information visible to us now. He then uses his mathematical model to create a three dimensional representation on a computer. To his amazement, he finds that the galaxies are actually a three dimensional text, each galaxy acting like the pixels on a computer. He reads off the sentence formed by this galaxy-sized textbook, which starts with "Congratulations Fred Blogs on your amazing discovery..."

    Should Fred Blogs be surprised to see text built from galaxies, which are written in English, obviously formed before English existed? The sample size is one - he has only one universe of stars with which to examine. For all he knows, the probability could be quite high that a universe will create a congratulatory sentence from its galaxies, personalised for the first person that discovers it. He should need, according to you, to examine some more universes first to see whether this is improbable or not.

    I think Fred Blogs is right to act surprised, even with a sample size of one. I think he would be right to conclude that the probability is exceedingly low that such a thing would happen by chance. Especially since Fred, like us, doesn't even know if other universes exist.

    Your Zebra example tries to give an example where a sample size of one is not sufficient to draw a conclusion on the probability, and it is right. However, in claiming a general principle, we only need a single counterexample to show it false. Just because sometimes a sample size of one doesn't allow us to infer a conclusion (eg, the Zebra), doesn't mean that all cases don't allow it. In fact, your Zebra example is attempting to draw a general rule (that we can't infer anything about probabilities from a sample size of one) from a sample size of one - the Zebra example. I deny that this general principle is true, because there are counterexamples.

    "Like another moderator here, you seem to want me to defend positions I do not hold. I find that very strange."
    Which position did I expect you to defend, that you do not hold?

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  12. Which position did I expect you to defend, that you do not hold?

    You attempted to bait me into defending a multiple universe scenario.

    If my analogy had been a zebra that had hair growing in a pattern which depicted the prime numbers up to 101 in Arabic numerals, then your idea would hold.

    But my zebra and our universe are not like that. We don't find Pi written out when proteins coil. When particles collide, the captured images do not spell out the apostles creed.

    Rather we find a universe with a handful of particles and 4 fundamental forces. After 13 billion years, you are one of the things atoms can do.

    I realize many people reject the notion that time and nature alone can make a brain. It is just so counter-intuitive.

    But intuition is a poor substitute for knowledge.

    People plug gods into gaps because they do not understand how really old the earth is, and how matter can self organize given the right conditions.

    Are you familiar with emergence? Or Conway's Game of Life? Take a look at starling videos on youtube.

    If the galaxies were arranged as you suggest, I could make no statement about the probability, but I would believe that the arrangement was designed by a mind.

    Too bad for your position, when we look at the stars, that is not what we find. That is not what we find at all.

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  13. Why do you write three responses instead of one?

    A.D.H.D.

    Back to Craig.

    Yes I know, it does not matter, life on earth or elsewhere, that was not my point.

    I will try and put it another way.

    The physical constants and matter over time create, by bottom up evolution, life.

    The unlikely scenario of 100 sharpshooters missing is a one-off event that allows the man to live. This one-off event does not have any affect on the evolution of the man's ancestors.

    In contrast, the physical constants are inextricably tied to the way life in this universe is or can be.

    The physical constants create life, the sharpshooters missing their mark does not create the mans life.

    Life is enmeshed with the natural physical constants. We are part of the same long dance.

    The sharpshooters all missing is unlikely.

    The physical constants are exactly as we would expect: conducive to life.

    To steal a phrase, we find the laws of nature as they are because of the impossibility of the contrary.

    Or think of this. If all of a sudden, all the laws and constants in nature suddenly shifted, and after that, if we were able to live in that new universe, then that would be a miracle.

    That situation is analogous to all the sharpshooters missing.

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  14. Croath,

    I just had a thought.

    So humans used to think that earth was the center of everything. Then when we learned that the earth orbited the sun we thought the solar system was the center.

    After we leaned that the sun was way out in the suburbs we still thought the Milky Way was the only galaxy, but now we know that the Milky Way is just one of billions of others.

    So then humans looked at the physical constants and again thought, hey this is all for us. The physical constants were created to sustain life.

    So now lets do a thought experiment. What if we did learn that there were billions and billions of other universes. And those other universes had random physical constants, some which gave rise to some kind of order and some that did not.

    Well, what then? What would William Lane Craig say then?

    He would say that well obviously God created the multi-verse so that life could arise!

    If a person cannot step outside their self-imposed anthropocentric box, then no amount of evidence will dissuade them.

    In fact, Craig admitted this in a public debate. He said that he was absolutely certain he was right about God, and that no experience or evidence could ever change his mind.

    That, my friend, is one powerful faith.

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  15. croath:

    You know that Craig is talking about the fine-tuning of the [alleged] physical constants of the universe ...

    Let's be accurate.

    The firing squad example establishes one simple point: that sometimes a situation does occur in which we wouldn't be around to observe it if it hadn't, yet we still ought to be astonished that we are there to observe it.

    Perhaps so, but that doesn't mean that this is an instance of such a situation.

    re: Fred Blogs....

    The probability is still undefined, but I'd be surprised. But that would be an emotional response, not a rational one. People have looked at the stars and seen rabbits, whales, bears, dragons and crockodiles. They've looked at goat entrails and seen the future. If you assign a number to every letter of the alphabet and do your arithmetic just right you'll see the name of your dog on page 3 of chapter 7 in Moby Dick. People have a robust ability to see astonishing things virtually everywhere they look, by hook or by crook. Where/how do you draw a line between the real and the sureal?

    In fact, your Zebra example is attempting to draw a general rule (that we can't infer anything about probabilities from a sample size of one) from a sample size of one - the Zebra example. I deny that this general principle is true, because there are counterexamples.

    No, he correctly infers that the probability of 20-striped zebras is greater than zero. That is something and it is a valid conclusion. Not particularly enlightening, but valid. The error is to say the single observation was improbable. There is no support for that. And that is not a "general rule", it is an ineluctable conclusion given how statistics is defined. The only way to wiggle out of it is to use two different definitions of probability in the two cases (1st: non-zero P for 20-striped zebras & 2nd: 20-striped zebras are improbable). But that wouldn't be criket.

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  16. I was going to post this in mm's thread, but then he closed it down. By fortuitous coincidence, the latest issue (Oct 2008) of Scientific American contains articles on several things that have been discussed in various threads here recently, and which I have referred to occasionally, in particular:

    * LQG calculations of the bouncing universe theory, by Martin Bojowald (link)

    * Martin Nowak on "prevolution": selection and the emergence of replication before life (link)

    There's also a great article on "optogenetics" - an emerging technology for probing and mapping (and even controlling) neural activity (link) It boggles the mind to think what this might do for cognitive science and our understanding of thinking (and perhaps also consciousness).

    This is why I love being in science and wouldn't trade it for anything: there's always something new and fascinating around the corner, and we're positively thrilled by having long standing views overthrown by something even more amazing (prevolution before evolution; bounce rather than bang? etc!)

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  17. re: Fred Blogs....

    The probability is still undefined, but I'd be surprised. But that would be an emotional response, not a rational one.


    I will go out on a limb here and say that if I, and every one else, saw a personal message to Fred in the stars, I would quite rationally, freak out.

    What Croath has done here, inadvertently perhaps, is construct a false analogy. He wants to say that the enormously improbable, or designed, message in the stars is analogous to what he thinks are the improbable, or designed, fundamental constants that allow life to exist.

    But this analogy suffers from the same flaw as Craig's firing squad analogy.

    The message to Fred in the stars did not CREATE FRED. It's a quirky weird one-off thing.

    The supposedly improbable features of our universe that led to life are not quirky one-off findings. They have been churning away, like little ratchets, for 13 billion years. We are the result of that bottom up ratcheting.

    The message in the stars is no ratchet. If I experienced something like that I would be a true believer post haste.

    But, when we examine the universe, we do not find that kind of message.

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  18. unBeguiled,

    If a person cannot step outside of their self-imposed materialistic box, then no evidence can ever change their mind.

    The atheist can, and does, do the same thing. There are plenty of atheists who wouldn't believe in God if He dropped out of the sky and turned their hair into steel wool.

    Read some of the reactions that atheistic scientists have had to discoveries that suggest theistic influence (Hoyle, Hubble, Crick for instance). A powerful faith, indeed.

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  19. If a person cannot step outside of their self-imposed materialistic box, then no evidence can ever change their mind.

    Quite right.

    I had this conversation a few weeks ago with a friend. We were discussing what sort of event or experience would we have to have in order for us to start believing in the supernatural.

    (Side note. I'm not sure supernatural is even a coherent concept, but here I mean God or ghosts or witchcraft and things of that sort.)

    One thing, as I alluded to above, it would have to be an inter-subjective phenomenon. I have experienced vivid hallucinations and illusions. Induced by anesthesia, or extreme sleep deprivation, or drugs. But in all cases they were one-off events only experienced by me. Also, each time, I quickly realized my brain was malfunctioning.

    So, I think people with a certain mind-set having similar experiences might misinterpret them as supernatural events.

    But if I and everybody else saw a 3 day old rotting corpse get up and walk around and then grow to be 60 feet tall and then summon a host of angels that flew around the world for a month healing amputees and smiting money changers - I think I would shrug off my naturalism.

    But I can only speak for myself.

    Others, as you rightly suggest, would explain the events as mass hallucinations or an elaborate hoax or alien tomfoolery.

    Perhaps you have hit on something here. We all have our own threshold of belief. We all will draw that line somewhere, and those lines fall on a continuum.

    We all know people who will believe any darn thing - Oprah's latest woo-woo guru, some snake oil huckster from late night infomercials, Rev. Robert Tilton, the reptilian agenda, channeling dead relatives and other non-sense. And on the other extreme those who would explain away my conversion scenario.

    The rest of us are somewhere in the middle.

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  20. I'm not much of a fan of trying to maintain a conversation with a handful of people at once, so I hope you'll forgive my brevity as I respond to only those things that strike me the most. Apologies to those who took the time to respond to me here that I don't return in kind.

    With that said, adonais wrote,
    "This is why I love being in science and wouldn't trade it for anything: there's always something new and fascinating around the corner, and we're positively thrilled by having long standing views overthrown by something even more amazing (prevolution before evolution; bounce rather than bang? etc!)"
    I'm very intrigued by this comment. You say you wouldn't trade science for anything, but who is asking you to trade it? I'm also interested about who the "we" is in the sentence "we're positively thrilled by..."?

    I'd almost think you're suggesting that this blog and its contributors somehow spurn science. I think science is eminently seated as the best method of learning about the contingent facts of this universe. But before I put too many words in your mouth, I'll let you respond.

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  21. unbeguiled:

    The message in the stars is no ratchet. If I experienced something like that I would be a true believer post haste.

    Maybe. You need to read Ed Jaynes' "Probability Theory: The Logic of Science", chapter 5 "Queer uses for probability theory." Its the only stats book that made me laugh out loud.

    But I think its like Cassius said; meaning, like fault, lies in ourselves, not the stars. As hard as it is to swallow, a random string generator is just as likely to spit out 'to be or not to be' as it is to spit out 'li niqklsw qli psa'. Even I balk at that, but its so nevertheless. Intuition is almost never reliable off the beaten path.

    We all have our own threshold of belief. We all will draw that line somewhere, and those lines fall on a continuum.

    There is only belief. The only continuum is how realistic the beliefs are.

    There's an old novel by John Gardner, "The Wreckage of Agathon." It takes place in ancient Athens and the protagonist Agathon is modeled on Socrates, a wise man, philosopher and a seer. At one point he is at a cocktail party (yes, its one of those novels) and a tipsy woman comes up to him and asks if he's seen any visions lately. He says (paraphrased) "I don't have visions, madam, that's what makes me I'm a seer."

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  22. Croath,

    Not everything requires a response, you know. I was just making a personal comment.

    "I'm also interested about who the "we" is in the sentence "we're positively thrilled by..."?"

    Anybody who likes to identify with the view I described. I'm not just referring to scientific discoveries per se, although that is one part of it, but an appreciation for the method; an ability to see it not as a failure to have been wrong about things, but as a natural steppingstone towards learning something new and making new discoveries. With every scientific theory that is falsified we know more, not less.

    I'm not saying religious people could not partake in such a view of science (that would be just as bad as saying that atheists can't have spiritual experiences, and no one here would claim that, right?) Although I do wonder whether it is possible to hold such a view of religion, but never mind that.

    I would, however, be lying if I said I don't think there's an asymmetry between scientific and religious discoveries, and also in how religious apologists view scientific discoveries versus how scientists do. It often seems to me that theists rejoice in scientific upheaval mostly because they can use that as a vehicle for criticism, saying "look, even the scientists don't know, why should we believe in science?!" Perhaps no one here has been guilty of that, and I was not accusing anyone, but I have certainly observed this sentiment on many occasions in discussions with theists.

    So to answer your question, one who takes such a view, or applies such a strategy, is probably not part of the "we" that I was referring to.

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  23. As hard as it is to swallow, a random string generator is just as likely to spit out 'to be or not to be' as it is to spit out 'li niqklsw qli psa'.

    Yes. But over a billion years, the number of English phrases, if any, will be dwarfed by the gibberish. I understand the lesson though.

    I think we agree on the continuum thing.

    I am ashamed to admit it, but an 800 page text on probability is unlikely to grace my bookshelf. Lightweight screeds by John Allen Paulos constitute my math reading lately. I'm no scholar.

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  24. UnBeguiled:

    I'm not recommending the whole book, just chapter 5. Its specifically about reasonable belief in improbable events. A university library might have a copy.

    However, Jaynes died before he finished the book and the manuscript knocked around on the internet for several years before a colleague edited and published it. A copy of the unfinished manuscript can still be found here, if you don't mind an unfinished work. Jaynes was one of the few people of his caliber who also wrote engaging English. I'm sure you can follow his arguments, but the math is there if you ever do want to get serious about it.

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