Evil Genius

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 28, 2007 12:41 pm

I spent half of last week at a conference in Irvine on “Astrophysical Probes of the Nature of Dark Matter“. Although the talks (which are on-line, by the way) were extremely interesting and bloggable (once other work stuff settles down), the most memorable discussion was a side conversation on the rules of having a scientific archnemesis. The archetypal archnemesis is someone who, in spite of violating various norms of scientific conduct (ranging from blatant cheating to rudeness), is successful in your subfield, and whose behavior compromises your own ability to get work done. However, you have to be very, very careful when adopting an archnemesis. So, here are the rules:

1. Your archnemesis cannot be your junior. Someone who is in a weaker position than you is not worthy of being your archnemesis. If you designate someone junior as your archnemesis, you’re abusing your power.

2. You cannot have more than one archnemesis. Most of us have had run-ins with scientific groups who range continuous war against all outsiders. They take a scorched earth policy to anyone who is not a member of their club. However, while these people are worthy candidates for being your archnemesis, they are not allowed to have that many archnemeses themselves. If you find that many, many people are your archnemeses, then you’re either (1) paranoid; (2) an asshole; or (3) in a subfield that is so poisonous that you should switch topics. If (1) or (2) is the case, tone it down and try to be a bit more gracious.

3. Your archnemesis has to be comparable to you in scientific ability. It is tempting to despise the one or two people in your field who seem to nab all the job offers, grants, and prizes. However, sometimes they do so because they are simply more effective scientists (i.e. more publications, more timely ideas, etc) or lucky (i.e. wound up discovering something unexpected but cool). If you choose one of these people as an archnemesis based on greater success alone, it comes off as sour grapes. Now, if they nabbed all the job offers, grants, and prizes because they stole people’s data, terrorized their juniors, and misrepresented their work, then they are ripe and juicy for picking as your archnemesis. They will make an even more satisfying archnemesis if their sins are not widely known, because you have the future hope of watching their fall from grace (not that this actually happens in most cases, but the possibility is delicious). Likewise, other scientists may be irritating because their work is consistently confusing and misguided. However, they too are not candidates for becoming your archnemesis. You need to take a benevolent view of their struggles, which are greater than your own.

4. Archnemesisness is not necessarily reciprocal. Because of the rules of not picking fights with your juniors, you are not necessarily your archnemesis’s archnemesis. A senior person who has attempted to cut down a grad student or postdoc is worthy of being an archnemesis, but the junior people in that relationship are not worthy of being the archnemesis of the senior person. There’s also the issue that archnemeses are simply more evil than you, so while they’ll work hard to undermine you, you are sufficiently noble and good that you would not actively work to destroy them (though you would smirk if it were to happen).

Now, what does one do with an archnemesis? Nothing. The key to using your archnemesis effectively is to never, ever act as if they’re your archnemesis (except maybe over beers with a few close friends when you need to let off steam). You do not let yourself sink to their level, and take on petty fights. You do not waste time obsessing about them. Instead, you treat them with the same respect that you would any other colleague (though of course never letting them into a position where they could hurt you, like dealing with a cobra). You only should let your archnemesis serve as motivation to keep pursuing excellence (because nothing annoys a good archnemesis like other people’s success) and as a model of how not to act towards others. You’re allowed to take private pleasure in their struggles or downfall, but you must not ever gloat.

While I’m sure the above sounds so thrilling that you want to rush out and get yourself an archnemesis, if one has not been thrust upon you, count your blessings. May your good fortune continue throughout your career.

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  • spyder

    Thusly is an archetypal archnemesis someone who also may represent a particular theoretical construct that is endorsed by the mainstream within or without the discipline, and garners support not so much from their diligent work, but from the fact that their area of study is “popular??” I don’t know how much this happens, or can happen, in the sciences, but it is more than common in the humanities and social sciences. In my own case, my proverbial archnemesis was someone who, inspite of the mounting evidence for a different theory, remained ever steadfast in praise of the ‘traditional’ and customary one. Hard to break down those sorts of barriers.

  • anonymous

    What happens if your archnemesis just happens to also be your boss? (He was my archnemesis before he became my boss.)

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Heh! I knew immedately who is my archnemesis, with no thought. Isn’t that interesting? One might be able turn these kinds of devices into pieces of zen practice too.

    Thank you for that , Julianne. In return, here’s a little story about the titles and labels that make up the existence of our lives. Maybe it will make you smile too!

    Dr. Seuss tells a story about the Sneetches. The superior race, the ones that everybody aspires to be like and also the ones that everybody hates, are the Star-Belly Sneetches; they have stars on their bellies, and everybody else doesn’t. One very clever fellow knew how predictable these Sneetches were, so he came in with a big machine that would put a star on your belly. All the Sneetches Without a star on their belly rushed in and came out with a star on their belly, but of course the original Star-Belly Sneetches still knew who-and how superior-they were. They weren’t thrown by this at all. But to facilitate this very predictable situation, the same clever fellow came along with a new machine by which you could go in and get the star taken off your belly. So all the Star-Belly Sneetches went into this machine and came out without stars on their belly; the superior ones were now without stars.

    The clever fellow kept these two machines going. Sneetches were running in and out, and the money was piling up, but after awhile all the Sneetches experienced shunyata. They didn’t know who was who or what was what or who was a Star-Belly Sneetch and who was a non-Star-Belly Sneetch, so after awhile they just had to look at each other without labels or opinions.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    lol Amara, alas on earth people will always think they (as a collective) are better or more worthy than some other group. Many cultures & races have aspired to the claim of chosen ones.

    Now days it is the professions
    1) The Medical profession – with its hierarchy and still further sub-racial or caste groups
    2) The Judiciary – with its well ‘ordered’ hierarchy and still further sub-racial or caste groups

    But whilst (2) may be appointed by Presidents or Kings or PMs; even Presidents, Kings or PMs have to trust and bow to the surgeon when they go under the knife.

    And the British government is still trying to hatch-up a plan to kidnap Mugabe (the archnemesis of Britain’s rule in Africa) whenever he next leaves his country on one of his regular trips for medical treatment in Europe. lol!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    I’ve always loved the Sneetches, and for some reason you never run into it in children’s bookstores any more. Maybe that egalitarian stuff was oh-so-70’s.

    What happens if your archnemesis just happens to also be your boss? (He was my archnemesis before he became my boss.)

    I am so sorry. This type of situation is one of the toughest around. To take the next step, you’re going to need recommendations from senior people, and the last person you want writing a letter for you is an archnemesis. You’ll therefore have to make sure you collaborate extensively with other non-evil people. However, if an archnemesis boss is to live up to his/her reputation, they’ll actively discourage this. So, you’ll have to make sure that you maintain high productivity on your bosses project while at the same time diversifying your work. It’s not easy, but it might be a safer course than towing the line and assuming you’re ever going to get the approval and support from your primary boss. Ugh. Again, my condolences.

  • bswift

    Chuck Klosterman wrote a great piece in Esquire magazine a few years ago about how to tell the difference between your nemesis and your archenemy, and the importance of having one of each.

    “Now, I know that you’re probably asking yourself, How do I know the difference between my nemesis and my archenemy? Here is the short answer: You kind of like your nemesis, despite the fact that you despise him. If your nemesis invited you out for cocktails, you would accept the offer. If he died, you would attend his funeral and—privately—you might shed a tear over his passing. But you would never have drinks with your archenemy, unless you were attempting to spike his gin with hemlock. If you were to perish, your archenemy would dance on your grave, and then he’d burn down your house and molest your children. You hate your archenemy so much that you try to keep your hatred secret, because you don’t want your archenemy to have the satisfaction of being hated.”

    Here’s a copy of the rest of the hilarious article.

  • http://www.amandabauer.blogspot.com/ astropixie

    i recently adopted my nemesis. we first met a couple years ago at a conference. while he was in a similar field at that time, he was not working in my subfield, therefore not yet my nemesis. the best part is that during that conference i took a hilarious picture of him in a rather embarrassing situation. i dont think he knows this small, but important piece of information…. bwah ha ha!

  • Carl Brannen

    Yet another reminder of the importance of sociology in physics.

    If, on the other hand, your nature is to prefer pleasant relations with the rest of the human race, you might take the motto “the friend of my friend is my friend”.

    There should exist a chain of frienship that will eventually get you to anyone you meet, so why not assume so from the start. If they’re not the nicest person on the planet, well, friends need to give each other a little slack.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Ah, I also knew immediately who is my archnemesis. I keep it with Pink: “I’m my own worst enemy”. I am pretty good in ‘compromising my own ability to get work done’ 😉

  • http://pieceful.wordpress.com/ Pieceful

    That’s hilarious! I must’ve missed that discussion. Julianne, what’d you think about the talks on sterile neutrinos by Alex Kusenko and Kev Abazajian? While not as theoretically satisfting a solution to the dark matter problem as supersymmetry (since it doesn’t address the hierarchy problem at all), I was pretty astounded that a few keV mass sterile neutrino mass can explain such a variety of astrophysical data ranging from pulsar kicks to warm dark matter. It’s certainly the simplest extension of the standard model that can explain dark matter data.

  • Ian Paul Freeley

    All that and your not going to even hint at who your archnemesis is?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    what’d you think about the talks on sterile neutrinos by Alex Kusenko and Kev Abazajian

    My reading of the talks (and especially Kev’s — Alex’s was a bit dense for a non-particle type) is that the x-ray limits are starting to become uncomfortable. The small-scale power results from the Lyman-alpha forest are finally looking more believable to me, and they’re pushing potential warm dark matter candidates to higher masses (greater than a handful of keV). At the same time, the limits on the x-rays produced by expected decays of sterile neutrinos give masses of less than the same handful of keV. So, parameter space seems to be shrinking down to a uncomfortable, (though still not impossible) level. However, this is waaaaaay outside my area of expertise, so I could be calling this wrong.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    All that and your not going to even hint at who your archnemesis is?

    Nope. I actually don’t have a worthy archnemesis. I have a candidate, but am not yet sure that it’s worth an escalation of their status. I had an ancient archenemy (classified according to the article bswift linked to above), but they died of brain cancer. I didn’t dance on their grave, but neither did I shed a tear (and this from a person who cries at dog food commercials).

  • soundslikeagreatsideconversation

    Does an archnemesis need to be trying to thwart you? Or can they just be oblivious?

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Look at it this way – it’s not so bad having a nemesis, or an archenemy, with whom you are engaged in constant competition (given the way science works, this usually means that open battle is occasional and it’s more like a constant gnawing irritant). It’s better than being ignored, unless the form of their archenemyness is to refuse to cite your papers.

    Being an underling of your archenemy is bad if the person is an exploiter of underlings, but could be less bad than if the person regards you as an ally in his/her scorched earth battles against the rest of the world. Sometimes “nice” people aren’t so nice to work for either. You always have to balance your interests against the interests of your boss.

    A related question which I will occasionally bring up in side conversations is, “Can you identify the future powermongers of your youngish cohort?” That’s a little elaborate; the pithier form of the question is “Are assholes born, or made?”

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    In my previous comment “could be less bad than if the person regards you as an ally” should read “could be less bad if the person [the nemesis boss] regards you as an ally.”

    It’s not always the case that the competition are your enemies and your collaborators are your friends. It depends on the personalities involved.

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  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar

    Julianne, cry at dog food commercials?
    Are they that bad you wanna kill yourself, or
    are the puppies so cute, they turn you to water …

    Aaah we humans are bundle of energy, emotions & feelings
    Molecules and nerve ends humming like particles, or is it vibrating like strings

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    Julianne, thanks for this amazingly useful post! I always knew one day that Cosmic Variance would host one.

  • Supernova

    Wernstrom!

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  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Scientific Biographies sometimes identify archenemies and archnemeses. Sometimes one, upon reading these books, admires a certain scientist even more, as one finds how deplorable were the obstacles thrown in her/his way by archenemies and archnemeses. Sometimes, more disturbingly, one finds that the scientist whom one admires, did horrible, terrible things to someone else.

    History judges whom are the good guys and the bad guys. It’s ever so much harder to tell while they’re all still alive.

    Does someone more daring than I want to list some famous antagonistic pairs from science history? Or, even more daring, alive today?

  • Elliot

    Some interesting combos:

    Einstein – Bohr – QM

    Susskind – Smolin – Anthropic Interpretation of the Landscape

    Elliot

  • bhabha

    Julianne,

    I fully agree with all the points you make except for the statement that rudeness violates the norms of scientific conduct. Would you explain why you think that?

    For instance, if someone says “Hi, Mr Taylor, you are a simpleton f*cktard and I’m here to tell you the way I proved Riemann’s conjecture.” and then continues with his real proof then would you consider such a presentation non-scientific?

    Best,
    bhabha

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    I fully agree with all the points you make except for the statement that rudeness violates the norms of scientific conduct. Would you explain why you think that?

    Ok, it violates the norms of what scientific conduct should be. If someone goes out of their way to tell me that I’m a simpleton f*cktard, then they’re on my list. It’s rude, unnecessary, and their mama shoulda trained them better. The only reason to treat someone that way is if you’re trying to undermine their confidence, and anyone who choses to act that way deserves a kick in the ass, no matter how they proved Riemann’s conjecture. Presumedly, if you managed to prove Riemann’s conjecture, you should feel good enough about yourself that you don’t need to get your jollies being a rude f*ckwit to others. It drives me nuts that people routinely do this sort of stuff. It costs you nothing to be gracious and decent, except maybe a tiny bit of thought before you open your damn piehole.

    So yeah, telling me that I’m an idiot is a good way to interfere with my ability to get work done, and to get yourself on the express elevator to the top of my nemesis list.

  • Ike

    Archnemesis conflicts can be very funny, as the Newman and Baddie sketchs (“History Today”) show; see History Today archive for some funny examples of childish professors.

    On the other hand, aspects are not so funny at all. What do you do if you are a graduate student or postdoc and you discover that your advisor/boss is cooking data and pushing other graduate students to falsify data (on the basis that the professor thinks that the science is already understood, but the professor needs data for his ‘breakthrough publication’)? Is this an ‘archnemesis’ situation, and how on earth do you deal with it – especially after you lose your temper and express your contempt of such behavior directly to your boss? What if you find out that a whole boatload of people in your department/business knew all about this, but had kept their mouths shut about it except in private, after a few beers? What do you do then? I have a feeling that this story is a rather common one, to tell you the truth.

  • http://cs.unm.edu/~aaron/blog/ Aaron

    Hmm. After looking at the pairs of archnemesises on wikipedia, and at the risk of perpetuating another favorite game of physicists — that of the cult of personality — this got me thinking.

    Was Feynman the archnemesis of Gell-Mann, was it vice versa, or was theirs a different relationship entirely? I suspect the first.

  • Elliot

    Aaron,

    Having been there at Caltech, in fact the year Gell-Mann got his Nobel, I can tell you that Feynmann was Gell-Mann’s archnemisis. Not so much for his scientific contributions but the cult of personality. Feynmann was the “peoples” Nobel Laureate. Gell-Mann was much more of an ivory tower type. Of course the fact that Gell-Mann considered himself to be the smartest person on earth did nothing to endear him to the rest of the population.

    Feynmann would come party with the undergrads, Gell-Mann was too important to mix with the commoners.

    Elliot

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Rudeness does violate the norms of scientific conduct. For example, there are rules about what you can write in a referee report, and personal or belligerent remarks are out of line. If someone presents a result (or makes a criticism during a talk, etc) but uses abusive or demeaning language while doing so, it doesn’t make the result wrong, but it makes the presentation unscientific. (And to me, it suggests that the person using the abusive language is insecure in their position and could very well be wrong. People who really are right most of the time don’t have to be jerks.)

    I don’t think Einstein and Bohr were nemeses on quantum mechanics. They just had different philosophical interpretations. I don’t know Susskind and Smolin well, but do you think the existence of the one causes the other to lose sleep? A nemesis, much less an archenemy, really has to get under your skin. A historical example might be Teller’s attitude toward Oppenheimer. Or read Nuel Pharr Davis’s “Lawrence and Oppenheimer” for an example of two determined opposites.

  • Eric

    Great post. So true, so true…

  • bhabha

    Julienne, Ben,

    I just don’t get it. I think the criterion for meeting scientific norms should be judged purely on scientific grounds. Personal issues should not matter. For instance there are people who think that shaving every day is a pain so they don’t do it, only every 5th day. There are other people who think that using a deodorant is unnecessary and they smell pretty bad. There are other people who couldn’t care less about the language they use because that was the way they were raised for some unknown reason and their mother did not ever tell them to use different language.

    On the other hand there are people who think that an unshaved man is disgusting, smelly persons are disgusting or people who use obscene language are disgusting. However, all of this is a question of personal style which has nothing to do with science. And a smelly person might even interfere with other people’s ability to get work done simply because they are disgusted by the smell.

    In fact, both point of views are a matter of style, I don’t see any objective criterion to decide whether an unshaven or shaven, smelly or non-smelly person is “better”. Similarly, I don’t see any objective criterion to decide whether a softly speaking person or a non-softly speaking person is “better”. One person is raised like this, the other one like that. Just as it is evident for you that using a language like “simpleton f*cktard” is not appropriate, for the other person it might be appropriate in some situation. I don’t think any one of the two of you has better grounds to claim he is “right”.

    You might not like the guy for using offensive language and he/she might become your archenemy but I don’t think he/she should become a scientific archenemy. If it were so, scientific archenemies could be picked just because we don’t like the style of a guy.

    To claim that people who use offensive language are doing so because they are unsure of themselves, insecure in their position, probably wrong, etc, is pure speculation. Of course this might be the case many times, but not always. Would you agree that if someone wears a suit and tie on a conference then this shows how insecure he/she is because he/she wants to make a “professional” appearance instaed of focusing on the content? I don’t think so, although some people might interpret it that way and argue based on their preferences in the field of clothing.

    But after all personal style does not matter, discussions about shaven vs. unshaven, smelly vs. non-smelly, suit/tie vs. T-shirt, “simpleton f*cktars” vs. “ladies and gentlemen” is not a discussion about scientific conduct.

    Best,
    bhabha

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    But after all personal style does not matter, discussions about shaven vs. unshaven, smelly vs. non-smelly, suit/tie vs. T-shirt, “simpleton f*cktars” vs. “ladies and gentlemen” is not a discussion about scientific conduct.

    These are not at all analogous cases. If someone is slovenly, it’s an impersonal action on their part. Not necessarily pleasant to be around, and most people are not going to want to be near them in conferences, but it’s not a personal attack. However, if someone is in the habit of calling me names, then they are choosing to attack me personally and professionally. I don’t care if they do this to everyone, because it’s no excuse. You wouldn’t excuse a mugger on the grounds that it wasn’t personal, and they do it to everyone. You wouldn’t excuse the mugger because he was raised that way, and who’s to say what’s right.

    Egregiously insulting your scientific colleagues is wrong, unprofessional, and unproductive. It is not a “matter of style”. You don’t get a free pass just because you’re a scientist.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Science is done by people. In order for it to get done, those people have to talk to each other. Someone who cannot talk to his or her fellow scientists without being abusive, condescending or rude can make the fellow scientists’ lives miserable, not to mention reducing productivity all around. This is more than just a distinction about personal dress codes. I guarantee you that being a jackass does not preclude one from having a successful scientific career; there are ways in which behaving in a self-aggrandizing manner, or simply stepping on the little people as you make your way to the top, can be helpful.

    However, it is not and should be part of accepted scientific conduct. There are a few people out there who think that the work they are doing is so central that they can treat people badly; they are wrong. Science is just another human endeavor; it isn’t so important that it should be used to excuse ethical or moral shortcomings.

    That said, I don’t think Julianne’s original point was just about people who present themselves in a rude fashion. Following Klosterman, a nemesis can be somebody whose conduct is more or less reasonable but for whatever reason, your work and theirs are always colliding. To rise to the level of archenemy some iniquitous behavior is required. It could be public rudeness, but it could be sloppy research, misrepresenting results, deliberately failing to cite your work, blackballing your proposals, saying bad things about your work behind your back. All of this stuff happens. There isn’t much you can do about it except rise above it. I think a little private enjoyment of the taste of revenge is allowable, but not in public. One has to be careful not to go over to the dark side.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Elliot:

    (1) Good examples in #23.

    (2) I was at Caltech 1968-1973 (and socially since then, as I’ve lived in Altadena for 19 years). The Feynman-Gell-Mann dipole is significant, but has large quadrupole and octupole moments. That is, the relationship between the two was incredibly formalized and nuanced and emotional. To a first order, the were each others’archnemises. Yet the full flavor of the connection (“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman) vs. “Damnit, You’re Right Again, Murray” as retirled “The Quark and the Jaguar”) would take yet another Feynman feature film to clarify. Or a stage play starring Alan Alda and — who for Gell-Mann? I’m biased, of course, as a Feynman coauthor who has stayed in touch with his family.

    (3) Newton as ultimate archnemisis: see Glashow’s talk transcript at

    http://www.iecat.net/butlleti/pdf/90_butlleti_sheldon.pdf

  • Elliot

    Hi Jon,

    I do remember you from those days. My vague impressions were that you were one of the brighter stars along (no small feat at CIT) and into science fiction.
    Perhaps we can catch up off-line.

    Elliot

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    On a campus with Feynman and Gell-Mann, no sane undergraduate could consider himself “one of the brighter stars along.” Nor herself, as Caltech underwent the phase transition to co-ed during that same 1968-1973 era. Cooperative phenomena were embedded.

    For that matter, there were undergrads who I considered brighter stars than I. I went to high school with Stephen Koonin, who started at Caltech the same year as I. Koonin rose to be Provost/Vice President of Caltech. Also, a couple of years ahead of me, was Paul Studenski, who in 4 years earned 2 B.S. and one M.S. degree (Physics, Electrical Engineering, and Biology).

    Since my wife is a Physics professor, and my son started university ate age thirteen (13), I’m not even the brightest in my family. Fortuntaely, we have a dog. I know that I’m smarter than the dog, because I beat her 2 out of 3 at Chess.

    To find my Yahoo email address, as I would be delighted to hear from you offline, go to the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences and use their search engine on my full name: “Jonathan Vos Post.” My edress is given at each of the 1,500+ hits. Which, by the way, does not mean that I’m bright, merely prolific on short easy Math…

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2007/04/blackhole-horizon-as-hill.html Plato

    I think people latched on to the ideas of Feynman in regards to the philosophical approach, and thus, we have this echoing going on in society when we use these teachers as models.

    Maybe some understood Feynman’s approach and devotion to his wife during that time, while some would be demonstrating the flirtatiousness of his behaviour? Ask the secretary;)

    Do we now disregard the history and philosophical approach adopted by the current leaders of science now?

    Why not make fun of eastern approaches and the “eightfold path.” Feel in accord with Gell-Mann? Tribal societies all have their leaders, and then someone different with Happyfeet comes into the fold, and while not the singer of the heart songs of Feynman, he may have tapped to a different view.

    I am thinking about Schwartz here.:)

  • http://predelusional.blogspot.com/ Stephen Uitti

    Where can i sign up so that people can pick me as their archnemesis?

    When i was a little kid (which was this morning, i think), i always wanted to be an Evil Genius. Being a Genius was never in doubt. But to be truely Evil, i’d have to give up sainthood.

    I can match people in a variety of fields – computers, astronomy, engineering. And, i promise to sink lower than anyone! Since i don’t have to be anyone’s full time archnemesis, there’s alot of me to go around!

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