Tokyo Police Club & Friends at the Commodore

Thanks to tickets I won from Miss 604, I got to go see Tokyo Police Club, along with Dinosaur Bones & Said the Whale on Saturday night. As part of some promotion, these tickets included what was originally to be a soundcheck party with Tokyo Police Club, but instead became a pre-set backstage visit. I’ve been backstage a couple of times – about a decade ago when I saw Moby, at the Commodore, and also seeing Toad the Wet Sprocket at, I think, the Opera House in Toronto (the old concert venue on East King – not the current fancy opera house) (did I just age myself with that last band?). Both previous times, backstage was a party. Fun, relaxed, energetic. But both Moby & Toad were acts at their height at the time, whereas TPC are still figuring stuff out. So there was an awkward meet-and-greet lineup. I suppose I could have got my picture taken with them, or had them sign my pass, but I’m not really that sort of guy. Were I covering the show for someone, sure – but then I’d have interview questions. Instead we made awkward small-talk, and I think everyone involved was glad when it was over.

Coming back outside, I caught the end of Dinosaur Bones’ set. They were fun. I’d need to give them a dedicated listen to decide if I liked them, if they had anything original in their sound, but they were fun. After a short break, Said the Whale came on, and played the house like they were the headliners. Given that they were local, it might actually have made sense for them to headline this show. The crowd was right into them and the feeling seemed to be mutual. I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of theirs. As Day said, they’re a cross between Spirit of the West & Maroon 5: they don’t know if they’re a hell-raising party band or smooth radio-friendly pop. Currently, they fall awkwardly between. Their  two most well known songs, or at least the two I recognized from the radio, seemed to epitomize either end of that spectrum. For all that, however, I greatly enjoyed their set. I think a couple of years on the road and they will be an utterly amazing live act, regardless of the quality of their studio material.

As I said earlier, perhaps Said the Whale should have headlined. Tokyo Police Club, despite their great hooks and catchy lyrics that have made them a deserved success, are not well-seasoned on stage yet. Sure, they perform well – they ran through their set cleanly from what I could tell, but there was a certain something missing – a spark, a connection, a something that Said the Whale had instantly from the first chord. But I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like the set – I did. I’m a big fan of the material, which goes a long way to overcome a less-than-stellar stage presence. & they played a good mix of stuff from their last & current album, and I bopped along happily.

So overall verdict? Enjoyable but not standout.

Albums of the year, 2010

Proving Jeremy Keith’s assertion that the best place to store upcoming posts is the submit button, I see that my 2009 best of is still a draft. Not this year’s! I dug 2010, musically. Definitely several albums came out that will remain on heavy rotation for quite a while. So, in alphabetical order, here’s my 2010 albums of the year:

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

I said to Leah at some point that this album sums up how I feel about where I live. I dig my house, not sure I like where it is. And this album is that too. 30-something angst , a nuanced look at the suburbs as a proxy for what it is to be older, but still retaining that idealism of a few years earlier.

Beach House: Teen Dream

A dreamy, folk/pop/indie rock album that, if I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure what it’s all about. But I can’t get enough of the delicately layered textures, the warmth of the sound.

Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot – the Son of Chico Dusty

So this album is probably the most fun album of the year. And really show just how much of a driving force behind the Outkast sound Big Boi really was. Mining the same traditional space as Outkast did, but pushing forward the sound to be contemporary & fun, this album is worth a listen even if you don’t generally like hip-hop (which would include me)

The Black Keys: Brothers

Definitely the album I’ve played the most this year, as evidenced that Liam can now sing along to almost every track. I’d say this is likely my personal favourite of the year. Fantastic bluesy, dirty rock.

Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma

An over-the-top, masterful collage of various elements of techno (Drum’n’bass,house,downtempo), not to mention jazz amongst other genres, this album should be have been an unlistenable mess. Instead I suspect it is the album that producers will be trying to emulate for years to come. Complicated, intelligent music that rewards multiple listens.

LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening

Somewhen, James Murphy learned the art of melody, adding it into his already fairly full bag of tricks to make this album just that much better from his previous. Even silly tracks like ‘Pow Pow’ are somehow more polished than any of his earlier throw-away tracks. And tracks like ‘I Can Change’ continue to sum-up 30-something life better than virtually anyone else.

Owen Pallett: Heartland

Nerdy, both musically & lyrically, this album demands multiple listens paying close attention on headphones. It was a grower not a shower for me – I almost dismissed it after first listen, then, listening again on my headphones walking around town, I discovered both just how bizarre and how incredible it is. Do yourself a favour: find some alone time and dedicate it to this album.

Robyn: Body Talk (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2)

Pop at its best! My total guilty pleasure of the year, although I feel somewhat vindicated by how much love these are getting. There’s also a slew of pretty impresive remixes of a lot of these songs out there. If nothing else, check out both “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” and “Dancing On My Own”.

Vampire Weekend: Contra

When I first bought this, I didn’t like it much, and I ‘shelved’ it (well, didn’t play it for a while). Then I started hearing “Run” on the radio some, found myself really enjoying it, and this fall, dug it out again. And I’m so glad I did. A much more mature, confident album than their debut, they seem to have embraced their contradictions and found a new phrasing that’s really working for me.

So I know that’s only 9, not the traditional 10, but I’m stopping there. Instead, here’s a few other albums that I liked, but couldn’t figure out how much in order to include them above. Honorable mentions, if you will:

  • James Blake: The Bells Sketch/CMYK/Klavierwerke EPs.
  • Janelle Monae: The Archandroid
  • Neil Young: Le Noise
  • Optimo: Fabric 52
  • Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz
  • Girls: Broken Dreams Club
  • Holy Fuck: Latin

36 hours of Kinect – initial thoughts

On Saturday, I bought a Kinect for my Xbox. I loved the idea of the tech, and thought, that like the Wii before it, could provide better gameplay for Liam, whose hands are still too small to properly use a regular xbox controller.

And…I have mixed thoughts on it so far. In no particular order:

  • The “wow” factor truly is there. I love that I can sit down on the couch, wave & it’ll log me in. I like saying “xbox play disc” and it’ll launch a game. I like the Minority Report-feel of moving things on the dashboard with my hands.
  • I’m not a fan of the 2 games we have: Kinect Adventures & Kinectimals. While both showcase the power of the device well, they’re not terribly interesting (although Liam seems to really dig them).
  • There is a clear delay between my movement and the response on screen. This has led to some frustration for both myself & for Liam for twitch-games on the system.
  • There seems to be some physics interpretation issues – throwing a ball often doesn’t seem to go anywhere at all where I’d expect a real ball, had I thrown one, to go. But as there’s no real “let go of the ball” motion, this makes sense – the system has to guess that.
  • Much like the Wii fit, I’m discovering that I generally prefer to play games sitting down to relax, not to get all worked up. That being said, the exercise/workout genre will likely be really excellent. I’ll know more in a week or so when EA Active 2 comes out, which I plan on buying.
  • The amount of room I’ve had to clear to be able to properly play really is big. So big that it wrecks the layout of our family room. This is partially due to some poor architectural decisions (by the house builders) and poor furniture decisions (by us), but the end result is that the TV is so far away that I have to strain my eyes to read small print or watch a puck during a hockey game.
  • I think because of the height difference between myself & Liam, we have so far had a really hard time with the Kinect keeping track of both of us.
  • Now that I have a Kinect, I want a bigger TV.  I’ve figured out a way to re-arrange the family room that should work for the above, but I don’t know when I’ll actually get around to doing that – but for anyone who has a TV 42″ or smaller (like us), you’re probably going to want a bigger TV once you’ve rearranged your tv-watching space. Or put a couch on wheels.

So as you can see, there’s lots I’m not a huge fan of. But I still really love the device. It’s still really early days and, much like the Xbox itself, it’ll take months, possibly years before we see developers truly doing innovative things with it. & I look forward to trying those out.

One last thought: It had occurred to me that a Kinect version of, say, Portal, would be really, really awesome.

Review: Wolf Parade & Moools at the Vogue Theatre

I was pretty stoked about last night’s concert. Each of Wolf Parade’s albums have made into pretty high rotation with me, and when I last saw them live, opening for…I want to say The Walkmen, but I’m not sure that’s right, their energy was great. That carried through to last night’s show as well, although it wasn’t without fault.

Those dots in the lights? That's Wolf Parade

I had never heard of The Mools before. They’re an indie-rock trio from Tokyo who play complicated, jazz-infused rock. I loved it. Last night I tweeted that they were lead by a “stealth puppet-master drummer”. Which I think needs clarification. Their drummer was very understated, a surprisingly still drummer. At first, I wasn’t that impressed. But then they started messing with time signatures, and the lead singer/guitarist went off on these crazy, amazing solos and I noticed, like in all truly great rock bands, it all started and ended with the drummer. So thus the puppet-master, reeling out the other parts of the band, then, as the solos come to a close, bring them back in. Definitely see them live if you can, and check out their music.

After a short intermission which really only served to heat up the theatre even more as sweaty bodies milled about in uncomfortably close quarters, Wolf Parade came out. And they rocked hard. They really, really gave it a lot, which, as an audience member is always really rewarding when you can tell a band is really bringing it. Towards the end of the night they talked about this – that playing Vancouver is sort of like playing a hometown show and historically they had choked but were really happy with this show.

The pacing was pretty good, mostly alternating older & newer tracks. If I have a quibble, and I do, but it’s a minor one,  is that they don’t yet seem to know how to run a concert. They’re still  a fairly young band, and haven’t been headlining for that long, and it shows. There were some overly long silences, some awkward-odd as opposed to awkward-hip interactions with the crowd.

A Day Apart Seattle – my thoughts on the workshop

Last week, I posted my thoughts on Day 1 of An Even Apart  (Seattle). I had fully planned on writing on both day 2 & the 3rd-day workshop, but after somehow losing a longish post to the ether, am skipping day 2. Suffice to say, the quality of the talks continued, as well as the laser-like focus on what can be accomplished with HTML5 and CSS3.

The A Day Apart Workshop was my primary reason for attending the conference. I wanted some hands-on learning & experimentation with these new tools that I had been unable to play with much. I have seen both Jeremy Keith & Dan Cederholm speak previously, so knew they would be good. And they were good. In fact, I would argue that the only thing that made this workshop worthwhile in the end was the quality of the presenters, who overcame everything to actually deliver quality.

This was the first A Day Apart put on by the AEA folks, so I expected it to not be perfect. But I did expect more. I’m certain that the next iteration will improve slightly on this one, and so on and so forth. But let me list my complaints, with some hopefully helpful critique:

  • Size of workshop: There were simply too many attendees in one room. It meant, for the most part, that it was hard to carry on a Q&A thread, because you don’t want to take up everyone else’s time & B, radically changed the possibilities of how run the workshop. To fix, I’d recommend a)lessening the number of spaces available and b)split the audience into 2 groups. Group A would get presenter #1 in the AM, presenter #2 in the PM. Group B would get it in reverse. Yes, this would double the work-load for the speakers – but I think would vastly enhance the experience for the attendees.
  • Format of workshop: The workshops were really just extended seminars – not so much a workshop.  While Jeremy’s seminar & workshop topics were different, Dan was talking about CSS3 in both, so his workshop felt like an extension of his earlier seminar. Jeremy had us guess the definitions of elements from the HTML 5 spec, and actually work that out. The result? I remember those definitions more than virtually anything else. Because I got to actually interact with the material. So here’s my suggestion to fix this: Each workshop was divided into 3 parts (if I recall correctly). If, let’s say, 10 minutes was cut out each (maybe even 20 minutes) and replace with a related exercise for the audience to do, suddenly the interaction with the material would increase greatly, and, I suspect, both people’s comprehension & retention of the material. If, in addition to 10 minutes of homework, there was schedule in 10 minutes for post-homework Q&A, that provides a nice way to summarize each content block.
  • Density of Material: The material-to-time ratio was way off, which meant we raced through the material. Either cover less or make the workshop longer. Both spent a long time on the history of the material – this was useful, but could likely have been done quicker, given the quality of the rest of the meat they were delivering.
  • Related Assets/sample code: We were all given a book with all the slides printed and bound into it. This is a great reference. But an online wiki, perhaps specific to the course, that was setup by the creators, but, going forward, be looked at, edited, updated by the attendees would be awesome. If a laptop was required (given the audience, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request) and we were provided links to download some source code, we could then, in the workshop, very quickly build a site each, to see the material in action ourselves – this would work great with the ’10 minutes of homework per section’ model – you just keep building on. This has been, more or less, the standard for programming workshops I’ve attended. For me, this is likely the biggest miss.

Despite everything I’ve written above, I do feel that I came out that workshop with a better understanding of the two tools I went into the workshop wanting to learn. As I said above, this is almost entirely due to the quality of the speakers, not the format of the workshop itself. If there was to be another A Day Apart at a future conference, on a topic of interest to me, I would certainly consider attending it again. But while it was OK, it could have been great.

Update (2010-4-12): I had initially remarked that both workshops felt like extensions of the seminar. Jeremy, thankfully, corrected me that his seminar and workshops were quite different. My apologies.

An Event Apart Seattle (2010) – Day 1

I spent the first 3 days this week at An Event Apart (Seattle). This is a conference that I’d been wanting to attend since its inception, but somehow never actually made it down to one. I was really looking forward to a few days of self-affirming web-geekery. And that respect, I wasn’t disappointed.

I don’t know the process by which An Event Apart selects their speakers, but whatever it is, it is good. From start to finish, the quality of the presentations were excellent – even those whose content I wasn’t particularly interested in. Jeffrey Zeldman got us started in fine form, with a talk, essentially, about mistakes that would be good to avoid in running a studio. Having been running a shop (or studio) for the past 7 years, this was of very little interest to me – I’ve made those same mistakes previously, I’ve come to many of the same conclusions, I’d offer the same advice to anyone wanting to strike out on their own. But! I still thoroughly enjoyed it. A light hors d’oeuvre before the meaty sessions that followed. He’s a great speaker, which made this otherwise too-low-level talk appreciable by all.

Of all the talks, Nicole Sullivan‘s, who followed next, was the least inspiring. It fell between two worlds for me. She was talking about object-oriented CSS. Given her background, I was hoping for a super-nerdy, intense look at site-speed optimization & whatnot. We got a little bit of that – but not with the detail I’d like, and then the second-half of her talk was spent looking at her wish-list for things to be included in future CSS spec. So, not even actual proposed spec. Things that she proposes should be in proposed spec that I might get to use in bleeding-edge browsers 3-4 years from now and actual projects a decade or so in the future. Which felt like a waste of my time, to be honest. So, while I’m down on her talk, her answers in the brief Q&A were great and I’d love to hear her do a “developer” talk, rather than a “designer” talk, which this seemed to be.

Dan Cederholm talked CSS3, and gave some nice tips & tricks. His presentations are fantastic – but I’ll talk more about him later. Luke Wroblweski gave the talk that I wish every designer in the world could hear. Titled “Mobile First!”, I think Jeffrey Zelman summed it up best: “Luke Wroblewski’s extraordinary “Mobile First” presentation changed the way I think about web design”. It was compelling, well-backed-up with samples, and, perhaps best of all, seemed very easy to implement.

Aaron Walter‘s talk ‘Learning To Love Humans—Emotional Interface Design’ was funny, humble  and very very smart – all about how to create an emotional response to design, and moving beyond the idea that functional is the goal (paraphrasing Aaron to sum it up: You never hear a chef say ‘taste this, it’s edible!’ so why should a designer).

If you’ve never heard Jared Spool talk about usability, design & process, chances are you’re doing it wrong. His insights are incredible. His talk here was about the anatomy of a design decision – what ‘kind’ of design to teams do, how they arrive at that process, and what effect it has both on productivity and on end-user experience. The 101-take: Experience is what happens in the space between actions. His talk, to me, nicely summed the internal conflict that makes Pencilneck Software work so well. I am, by default, an intuitive developer. I rely on tips, tricks, experience and instinct to guide me through what I do. Jeff, by contrast, is a firm believer in process & methodology to get things done right. Where we meet in the middle is why we are successful where lots of other firms have failed, I feel – and Jared Spool really captured both the differences in approach and how they each affect teams & workflow.


Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

I’ve just finished reading Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ latest book. I’ve an ongoing habit of alternating reading one fiction, one non-fiction book. I keep meaning to write about some of them here, but never get around to it, but am taking the time for this one. Zeitoun tells the story of one family’s experience immediately preceding, during & after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It grew out of the Voice of Witness project, a fascinating project, particularly in this modern age, with a goal of collection oral histories.

Zeitoun tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American & his wife Kathy. Like most of what I’ve read by Dave Eggers, the concern here is not so much in the writing of a book, but in the TELLING OF A STORY. An important story – content seems to precede style in his work – particularly these semi-journalistic books like this one & his last, What is the What. This has both positives & negatives. I really feel like I’m hearing these people’s own voices, much less so than Dave Eggers’ voice. On the other hand, I think some of the writing suffers somewhat for this.

Yes, everything that you might think would happen to an Arab-American canoeing through post-hurricane New Orleans in the post-9/11 America happens to this family. It’s horrible. It’s also the most affecting personal story I’ve read of just how things have changed for muslims in America since 9/11. This small, personal story made a much greater impact on me than any of the large-scale important reporting I’ve read in the papers, magazines, etc to date. It’s a good, sometimes hard, but well-worthwhile read.

My Top 10 Albums of the Year, 2008

I missed out on doing this last year – I don’t recall why, but I’m sure I had a good reason. Or not. Nevertheless, it didn’t happen, and much to my surprise, people complained. So it’s back this year. If you’d like to see my previous “best of” lists, you can find them here: 2006, 2005 & 2004.

This year was a pretty good year for music that I like – a good mixture of rock, pop and techno all came out this year. I also moved, and now have more time to listen to music on my commute, so I’ve been very appreciative of it. So, without further ado, here’s my best albums of the year, in alphabetical (by artist) order:

Beck - Modern Guilt Beck – Modern Guilt

I think that this is the album that “The Information” was trying to be – introspective and serious – meditations on loss and death. With Danger Mouse producing, Beck’s tendancy to play with historical genres never overwhelms the songs themselves. An exquisite disc that rewards a close listen in headphones – both for Beck’s signature imagery as well as the music itself.

Buy it from Insound

The Bug - London Zoo The Bug – London Zoo

Welcome to dubstep, everyone! A potentially crass cashing-in on the rise in popularity of a sound he helped create, Kevin Martin ends up delivering one of the most polished techno albums in years. While clearly aimed at radio, what with clearly defined 5-minute tracks, it’s a pounding disc that I can’t get enough of. Like much of the music I liked this year, it’s simultaneously a subtle disc, with new layers of sound revealing themselves only with a careful listening. That being said, I defy you to listen to this and NOT want to dance.

Buy it from Insound

Clark - Turning Dragon Clark – Turning Dragon

Techno of a completely different variety infuses Clark’s ‘Turning Dragon’, possibly some of the most complex techno I’ve heard since Plastikman way back when. Agressively dirty in sound, there’s still seemingly endless strands of loops, clicks, whirrs, bleeps and the like fading in and out of this disc. Played loud on crappy speakers this hearkens back to 90’s industrial (that’s a good thing), but use good headphones/sound system and you’ll be rewarded not only with crunchy techno, but also wasps of much more ephemeral sounds as well, creating a fascinating, but also somewhat unsettling soundscape.

Buy it from Insound

Fleet Foxes - eponymous Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

Sweet, nearly choral folk unlike anything else I’ve heard lately, this album, for all its quiet wonderment, exploded into the scene this year. Of all my picks, I suspect that this will a)show up on the most other top 10 lists and b)be the most divisive. I’ll warn you now – if you loathe CSNY or the Beach Boys, you’ll not like Fleet Foxes. That being said, they seem to sum up where a lot of more richly layered folk sounds of late (including the psych-folk types like Devendra Banhart) have been aiming for. Exquisite harmonies and rich, traditional arrangements make this album unmissable.

Buy it from Insound

Lindstrom - Where you go I go too Lindstrøm – Where you Go I Go Too

This album claims the prize for “most unexpected” this year. I was expecting a mellow, ambient album, and instead, while still in the realm of ambient, it’s got a foot firmly in the world of disco. And somehow, it works. This has quickly become a favourite of mine for when working late – it blends into the background when I need to concentrate, but when I focus on it too, there’s enough going on to reward the ears.

Buy it from Insound

Santogold - eponymous Santogold – Santogold

Apparently, Santogold comes from A&R, has written tracks for Ashlee Simpson, but Diplo is listed as a producer. Those seeminly irreconcilable worlds come together to great effect on her debut, which is something like a journey through the past – sampling a little bit of new wave, global hip-hop, dance pop and more. Through it all, Santogold holds it together with her voice and excellent songwriting. She reminds me somewhat of “Mutations”-era Beck – playing with different genres to find a wholly new one all her own.

Buy it from Insound

TV on the Radio - Sounds of Science TV on the Radio – Sounds of Science

I’m not sure I can say anything effusive about this album that hasn’t been said by critics before, but let me just say this: this is a nearly perfect indie-rock album – it’s optimistic, forward-looking, musically dense, lyrically obtuse, both catchy and somehow austere at the same time. This album might like the Pet Shop Boy’s “Very” – so good tht TV on the Radio should never make another album, as it will likely pale in comparison.

Buy it from Insound

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

This album came out early in the year and is already suffering some backlash, but I unabashedly love this album: it’s catchy, you can sing along to it, it has a new(/old) sound and is nerdy – the album contains one of my all-time favourite lines “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?”. This album was on repeat more than any other this year in my playlist, and despite hearing it everywhere, I still haven’t tired of it, which bodes well for its future.

Buy it from Insound

Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane Chad VanGaalen – Soft Airplane

CVG reminds me of Neil Young in all the good ways – fragile, plaintive, delicate and dark, yet somehow never depressing, but rather, uplifting. He’s also a master instrumentalist and crafts some of the more elegant soundscapes you’ll likely ever hear, mixing in seemingly a million different instruments, off-beat percussion, and then, just when you think it might overwhelm the song, he pulls it all back until you’re left with just him and his guitar.

Buy it from Insound

Walkmen - You and Me Walkmen – You & Me

The Walkmen are a band that have slowly, but surely, grown on me – I wasn’t a huge fan when I first heard them, but I’ve liked them more and more with each listen and each album. You & Me was no different. My first reaction was “Meh” – it felt a little like they were channeling The National – and I still think they are to some degree – for a band that was known for devolving (in the best sense) into noise rock on a regular basis, this is an incredibly tight, controlled album. The exquisite production on this album still makes me believe that this songs will travel well, and simply opens up new doors for the Walkmen live – keep it soft and controlled or let loose as they’re known for – this collection certainly supports both directions.

Buy it from Insound

That’s it for this year! Let me know what albums you think I’ve missed in the comments.

The Boss

Last night at GM Place, one of my life’s dreams actually came true: I saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band play live. It may not be the most aspiring of dreams, but it was one of mine, as I’ve been a huge fan, much to the scorn of many friends, ever since I was a little kid listening to my brother’s copy of Born in the USA on the record player at home [note: It may actually have been my folks, or my sister’s, but Stuart does seem the most likely owner of that album].

I had planned to twitter the set list as the show went on, but, 3 songs in, I was so engrossed in the stellar performance I simply forgot. It was pure, basic rock’n’roll at it’s finest. The man (and his band) may nearing 60 years old, but he plays with such, such wild abandon and such intensity that he comes across as fierce as I’ve ever seen. His voice is a little hoarser, and loud notes are shouted rather than sung, but it really doesn’t matter when he’s yelling “Baby we were born to run”.

The E-Street band are so tight it’s scary. The only act I’ve seen that is comparable is Crazy Horse, Neil Young’s sometime-backing band. It’s an apt comparison, I think, given that their stage acts are very similar, despite the very different temperaments of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

The show was your standard late-career-rocker mix of new album material (not a bad choice, as Magic is fantastic) and older fan favourites, with a pair of obscure tracks to please the fanatics (he dug up an outtake from Born in the USA for one track, at the request of someone he ran into the previous night who’d been following the tour around).

Rock’n’roll bliss!

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