Recent findings on the neuroscience of human nature.
Recent findings on the neuroscience of human nature.
The emphasis of xTopia U is on the YOU— the student, faculty member, staff person, or other valued member of the xTopia University community!
My name is Podkayne and I was born here on campus, in the xTopia U-Natorium! And I’ve lived here all my life–15 years (that’s a bit over eight Martian years)!
Visitor #6: Podkayne, if you were born and raised here, and you’ve been in this place all your life, don’t you ever want to get away from it?
Podkayne: Oh, I like to explore other places, but I always want to come home to University. I feel more alive here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We are told that our project was named University because our purpose is to facilitate a universe of possibilities. xTopia University started as one of those possibilities, a project conceived and carried out by, for, and of a conscious community of artists, engineers, scientists and philosophers. I grew up in this community, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
We learn in the histories, and know that in many places still today, education has been separated from general life, often made compulsory and relegated to specific times, places and procedures. Corporations took on the tasks of research and product development for a profit, while politicians were responsible to craft projects of benefit to the community. At University projects are constantly being started, executed, sent out to find those who can now benefit from what has been accomplished. Someone or ones snag onto an idea and start to figure out the steps from here to there. A call is given out to anyone who is interested or has relevant skills to join in. We learn what we need to know each step of the way and bring in others as the project progresses. We have the background structure of xTopia University to draw upon, where learning of all kinds is constantly in session.
From the time I was very young, from my first moments of remembered consciousness, I knew any of my questions would find serious response at University. There are the libraries, record chips of any subject imaginable, everything explained from the simplest child’s vantage point up through the most learned of scholars in the field, fully illustrated in animation and live action, as appropriate. More importantly, there are the people, the scholars, engineers, scientists, artists, each with their passions that they are so very happy to share.
University is the busiest, bubbliest, energized and enthusiastic environment to grow in. No one says: “it can’t be done.” It’s always: “well, what’s the next step we need to get there?”
Well, are you guys ready to get started?
[Nods, grins, eager murmurs, and a few blank stares]
OK. But before we actually start the tour, I want to give you some background on the beautiful and somewhat exotic name of our alma mater. (BTW that’s Latin for our bountiful mother.)
If you don’t have your Google-eyes on, please put them on now so you’ll get the video and hyperlinks and stuff as I talk.
Ready? OK. The name of xTopia U is derived (obviously) from the word Utopia.
The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”) and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. The identical English pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning– a good place that is no place.
Thus a Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect social, political, economic and legal system . . . that doesn’t exist.
Utopian societies don’t exist on terra firma, either because they are places described only in works of philosophy, fantasy, or satire; or because the Utopian communities which have actually been founded from time to time here on planet earth have utterly failed to thrive or to persist.
“Chronologically, the first recorded utopian proposal is Plato‘s Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, it proposes a categorization of citizens into a rigid class structure of “golden,” “silver,” “bronze” and “iron” socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the “philosopher-kings.” The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear.”(Wikipedia/Utopia)
Utopias in Economyland
Among the many varied species of Homo Utopianus, some have invented perfect economic systems that never existed, or which existed in humanity’s distant, romanticized past.
“[C]apitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by some as the type of economy in a utopia. . . . According to the Dutch philosopher Marius de Geus, ecological utopias could be sources of inspiration for green political movements.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)
Yet other Utopian visions have been based on religion, science, or a combination of both.
“Inter-religious utopia is a condition where the leaders of different religions accept science as a part of human life and agree to abolish all baseless superstitious beliefs. In more extended theories it goes up to the level of different religious leaders setting-aside their differences and accepting harmony, peace and understanding to unite all religions within one another. . . .
“Intra-Religious utopias are based on religious ideals, and are to date those most commonly found in human society. Their members are usually required to follow and believe in the particular religious tradition that established the utopia. Some permit non-believers or non-adherents to take up residence within them; others (such as the Community at Qumran) do not. . . . In the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people’s lives could be governed by their faith. Among the best-known of these utopian societies were the Shakers . . . . (Wikipedia/Utopia)
Scientific Utopias are set in a future day when science and technology have created all manner of wonders and cured all human maladies.
“Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)
“Extropianism, also referred to as the philosophy of Extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition.
“Extropianism describes a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactive approach to human evolution and progress.
In 1988, Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought was first published. This brought together thinkers with interests in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, life extension, mind uploading, idea futures, robotics, space exploration, memetics, and the politics and economics of transhumanism.” (Wikipedia/Extropianism)
We have taken this historical sidetrack so I can put xTopia U in context and explain what it is and is not. It is not a Utopia. It is not based on a preconceived idea of perfection. There is no preset formula, blueprint, or master plan. Instead, the ongoing evolution of xTopia University is symbolically represented by the mathematical variable “x”, which also stands for “experimentation“.
“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)
But xTopia is not a single experiment– it is an evolving place and resource base through which we cultivate an endlessly-developing and diversifying ecosystem of experiments, observations, discoveries, connections, and production processes. One metaphor for this physical and intellectual ecosystem and its ever-spreading, interweaving networks of roots, branches, and nodes is the great Tree of Life.
The scientific method and the art of empirical experimentation was first pioneered in ancient times by gifted individuals. It gradually developed into a systematized and teachable craft, and then evolved into a science and a technology. I don’t refer to technologies employed within particular experimental fields but to the evolving and recursive science and technology of experimentation itself. By experimenting on experimentation xTopia extends the science of science. At xTopia, continuous improvement applies to the methods as well as to the products of science.
On the other hand, from the outside xTopia doesn’t look or act much differently from other communities centered around a large college or land-grant university. In ancient Rome a collegium was roughly analogous to a corporation, a club or society, or a group of persons living together under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”).
“Land-grant universities …are institutions of higher education in the United States designated by each state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on [Religious or] abstract Liberal Arts curricula. Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private schools, including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” (Wikipedia)
In addition, xTopia U has intentionally copied many of the features of the University of Virginia, the school established in 1819 by the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. More than 200 years later UVA is still considered one of the best universities in the US.
On January 18, 1800, Thomas Jefferson…alluded to plans for a new college in a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”
Other universities of the day allowed only three choices of specialization: Medicine, Law, and Religion, but under Jefferson’s guidance, the University of Virginia became the first in the United States to allow specializations in such diverse fields as Astronomy, Architecture, Botany, Philosophy, and Political Science. Jefferson explained, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Keep that last sentence in mind. I’ll be coming back to that after I say just a little more about Jefferson’s approach at UVA.
Jefferson centered UVA around the “Academical Village” consisting of a vast, terraced green surrounded first by the residential and academic buildings and then by the gardens, The Range, and the larger university. The common bonding of faculty and students in residency is considered integral to establishing peer discourse. And of course Jefferson’s university was originally surrounded by extensive lands which provided local sources for many of the economic necessities of life. xTopia U is fortunate to have adequate land holdings of our own. When we purchased our campus (then it was called the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) from The State in 2019, we were able to acquire nearly 22,000 additional acres surrounding the property. Much of the area around xTopia U still remains largely undeveloped and rural. In addition to the pre-existing towns nearby, a number of Eco-villages have grown up around us.
In all these ways xTopia U is very similar to Jefferson’s vision which in some respects may have been a pretty darn good approximation of a Utopia. The big difference is that xTopia might have started in almost any arbitrary configuration because its core principle is innovation, adaptation, and evolution. It doesn’t hurt to start with a great foundation, but the emphasis is not on a preexisting design–the emphasis is on continuous improvement.
Colleges and schools
xTopia’s initial organization was patterned after Jefferson’s UVA in the arrangement of its colleges and schools.
Of course we continuously extend and improve all the curricula and add new schools and centers of our own design which I will go into a little later on.
Now, when The State put Alabama A & M up for sale it was a historically black university with a lot of history. It was originally established by an act of the Alabama State Legislature in 1873 as the State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students. By the time it was purchased by us, it had about 6,000 undergraduates and graduate students from 44 states and 11 countries and a faculty of about 300. Quite a few of the A&M faculty and staff are still here at xTopia U, but now there are about 10,000 students, 2,000 faculty, 5,000 people on staff, and about 10,000 other independent free-lancers and family members in residence. The folks here now are of every imaginable ethnic, cultural, and national origin.
We’ve done a lot of new construction but we also retained some of the original Alabama A&M facilities. The original Learning Resources Center is a 75,000-square-foot building with over 50,000 real paper books. There were originally half a million hard-copy books in there but we had to get rid of most of them to make room for the necessary digital equipment and facilities like the interactive Distance Learning Auditorium and the conference rooms, study lounges, labs, multimedia production studios, etc. We also kept:
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System which was based here when we bought the school back in 2019 is still here working in partnership with xTopia U. They work with our scientists, farmers, and foresters on developing and testing sustainable, organic practices and providing research, education, and technical services around the world. We are a major permaculture center and there are so many other sustainable and ecology things I don’t even have time to talk about it on the tour. You can get the details that interest you online.
We have also added some things Jefferson’s UVA or Alabama A&M never dreamed of. We have two concentrating solar-thermal power stations that supply all the power for the campus. We produce the bulk of our own food and forestry products. We have our own water wells and rainwater catchment systems. We have a variety of cottage industries and light manufacturing facilities that make things like electric vehicles, solar roofing tiles, and photovoltaic films and coatings.
xTopia has become a leader in the production of ethanol from grasses and waste cellulose. We not only sell ethanol in our local market but we also export our ethanol technology around the world.
Visitor #2: “My brother in law is a rocket scientist, and he told me it takes more energy to make ethanol that you can get out of it.”
(Rolling her eyes) We don’t have time to get into that side track right now, but when you get a chance, look at this debate between Doubting Thomas and my father, Poor Richard: Fermenting the Ethanol Debate.
A large number of xTopians from many disciplines participate in R&D for sustainable, ecological economic models. Consistent with our experimental approach to everything, we test a hypothesis with controlled trials in real-world situations. We often experiment on ourselves because the entire xTopia campus is a laboratory, wired for massive data collection, and we carry on a wide variety of economic activities that provide convenient test-beds for new ideas. (For a quick intro to sustainable, scientific economics, check this link: Escape from the Planet of the Economists.)
xTopia is, in part, a federation of co-operatives. Many of xTopia’s tangible and intangible assets are collectively owned by members of its cooperatives. In many cases workers participate in collective bargaining, although in some cases (such as certain xTopia faculty and staff positions) the pay scale is computed according to an algorithm (I’ll explain in just one minute).
A janitor who has worked at xTopia for 10 years may earn considerably more than a janitor in the mainstream economy, so many people might want to compete for the job. What keeps xTopia from firing a highly paid janitor and replacing her with a low-paid janitor? Something akin to a tenure policy. Most xTopia labor contracts permit firing only for “just cause” as determined by democratically governed labor councils of working xTopia peers. Labor councils also deal with issues of labor standards, job descriptions, workplace conditions, etc.
Although our experimental orientation leads to a lot of diversity, fringe benefits are often provided through member-funded mutual benefit associations. A fringe benefit that everyone loves is the sabbatical. For every five years I work, I get a year of paid leave. We consider this as much a benefit to the community as to the individual.
xTopia is a also a leader in the development of alternative and complementary currencies and banking methods. Many xTopia members and contractors who work with xTopia have agreed to be compensated in xTopia Happy Hours (HH) for their labor. Several coops use a scheme in which each hour worked earns one HH (plus an additional .00033HH times the total cumulative number of hours a person has worked for xTopia in their lifetime), up to a maximum hourly rate of 30 times the hourly rate of the lowest paid member, regardless of the nature of work performed. Thus each successive hour worked earns slightly more HH than the hour before, and the rate doubles approximately every three years (6,000 hours). The maximum rate is reached in about 15 years.
Additional HHs may be paid for certain finished products, goods, or services over and above the labor involved. These rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. HH credits can be exchanged for a great variety goods and services on the xTopia campus, at many places in the surrounding communities, and at numerous sites online.
Naturally other schemes are constantly emerging and evolving as much (or more) through trial and error as by design.
(BTW, at xTopia U we are constantly developing the art, craft, and science of the experimental method itself. In other words, we even experiment with the process of experimentation, so new and different experimental methods and styles are always emerging and evolving here.)
Advanced Social R&D
The last thing I’ll include in this part of the tour is just a brief mention of some of xTopia’s unique social R&D centers. In addition to basic research, these centers help to develop new pedagogic methods and curricula and provide guidance for public policy:
So that’s the bird’s eye view of the xTopia campus with some of our history and organization in the physical sense.
The xTopia approach
The group that started xTopia, including my father, Poor Richard, came from many walks of life: Occupy Wall Street, MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, The Wikipedia Foundation, Google, the Integral Institute, the AHA! Foundation, the Gurdjieff Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, and too many others to list. They were a community of collaborators with expertise in psychology, linguistics, media studies, education, neuroscience, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, and innovation design.
A few minutes ago I quoted Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” That’s really the key to xTopia U. We don’t know what a Utopia might look like or how it might work, but here we are working towards a happy and sustainable future, as close as we can come to Utopia perhaps, one day and one experiment at a time. You might say its an enlightened trial and error approach.
Of course we always have lots of experiments going on all at once. Its a massively parallel multiplayer game. And almost everyone here at xTopia is a volunteer guinea pig, including the faculty and the families. Every school, college, research center, and every other organization and individual on campus is both a conductor of research and a subject of research. At the same time that we study math or science or music, or work in the labs, farms, or other facilities, we also study ourselves. We capture, analyze, and experiment with everything about ourselves– everything we do, everything we say, and a lot of what we think and feel– all the time.
This approach evolved out of various “Extreme Life Logging” projects back in the 2000’s. In 2003 it was estimated that as much new data was being generated about every two days as had been accumulated in all of history up to that year. By 2015, the rate of accumulation reached about 8 zettabytes (1 ZB = 10^21 bytes) per year, or about 18 million times the total digital assets held by the Library of Congress just five years earlier. At our current logging rates the xTopia community is generating that much new data on a monthly basis.
Such volumes would have been utterly toxic to the Metanet 20 years ago, yet it was the expanding “data deluge” (or “Great Flood”) that initially lead to major advances in artificial intelligence and turned the scientific method on its head for about a decade while machine learning systems churned through growing backlogs of undigested data. This was called the Fourth Paradigm of Science. In those days about the only “science” that could get funded in the Corporate States of America was experimental data mining methodology and new human-readable presentation techniques. Until fairly recently the financial return on investment for improvements in data utilization remained orders of magnitude higher than for data collection.
The Virtual xTopia
The Google-eyes we use here are our own special design. We call them “peepers”. They do all the things your regular Google-eyes do and a lot more. They constantly record what I look at and what I say, and they record my brainwaves, blood pressure, pulse, temperature, galvanic skin resistance, and lots of other bio-metric stuff. We call it the quantified self. They also record things going on around me for context.
Visitor #5: “Don’t you ever have any privacy, Podcayne? It sounds like Big Brother is always watching. How can you stand that?”
It isn’t like that, really. All the information my peepers collect is psuedo-anonymized. That is, recorded under an encrypted account. The audio and video that is collected of me, and other people around me, is stored in a way that protects the real identities. If a scientist views the data from my peepers today, or from any of the other millions of recording devices around campus, she will see and hear realistic, computer-generated, anonymous avatars instead of seeing and hearing the actual people. The body language, facial micro-expressions, voice metrics, bio-metrics, etc. will be equivalent but she won’t be able to identify the actual people involved unless she has access to the encrypted reference data in someone’s personal profile to compare it with. That personalized data is very carefully protected, and personal identities can only be accessed and used with each person’s permission. I’m sending your Google-eys some of the computer-rendered video of us right now so you can see what its like.
Visitor #8: “Wow, Podcayne. I love your costume!”
(Grinning) Thanks! I designed that Avatar myself.
Visitor #1: “Doesn’t that give away your identity, then?”
Only to you guys right now and other people who know me and know how I have customized my avatars. A lot of us do it. But our customized avatars are only used when and in ways we allow.
BTW our hypergrid is the best three-dimensional virtual world in the known virtual universe. Its a lot like the Star Trek holodeck, but with our peepers we access it from anywhere. We use it for recreation, research, and education. We have a hypergrid version of the whole campus, and most of our distance learning is done “in-world”. After our tour is over, you’ll be able to continue exploring xTopia U in-world all you like.
Visitor #1: “Hey, I look like a dork!”
Podcayne looks at an image that her peepers project on the floor and makes a few gestures: How’s that?
Visitor #1: “Ahh, sick! Thanks.”
With virtual reality we do a lot more than teaching and learning (or goofing off). Its more like coaching, training, and practicing. There is only so much you can get from a text or a lecture. You sure can’t learn how to play basketball from a book. But with VR we can put you on location and in the action. You don’t just get information, you develop skills. One of my favorite xTopia massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) is the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The whole setting, including the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the surrounding area of 1482 Paris, represents the landscape of the mind. All the characters are potentially parts of your own identity. Playing roles in the game helps you to to see yourself in others and others in yourself.
For kids of all ages we have some fun things like the Virtual Fables. These are based on classic fairy tales and folk tales like Aesop’s Fables, Tales of Br’er Rabbit, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of our most popular games is Animal Farm 2.0, based on George Orwell’s classic allegory. The players can become any of the characters in the stories. The stories that we select to make into games all have important morals, lessons, cognitive skills, or social skills for the players to discover and practice.
Our role-play games all give individualized feedback on the players’ social and cognitive skills, cognitive biases, implicit associations, etc. This feedback helps players develop skills and capabilities very rapidly.
xTopia’s secret sauce
That brings me to the point where I can explain the special mission of xTopia U. The recipe of our secret sauce: self awareness. xTopia is founded on the belief that humanity does not face a crisis of the environment or energy or population or even a lack of ideas. Technical solutions to our economic, political, and environmental problems have been sitting unused on the shelf for a long time. Instead, humanity faces a crisis of human nature.
Human nature is a product of evolution. The Origins of Human Nature are found in the evolutionary contest between individual and group selection. We also have a lot of cognitive idiosyncrasies, such a tendency towards certain kinds of predictable irrationality.
Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture in the past few centuries has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges, our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized government).
Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.
If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what we call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.
Some might consider this an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that we call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.
To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design.
In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:
- Psychological testing
- self-observation techniqies
- Various kinds of meditation
- psychological mindfulness practices
- psycho-physiological exercises (such as yoga, Tai Chi, dance, massage, etc)
- binaural rhythm stimulation
- operant conditioning
- psychoactive ethnobotanical substances
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- peer-to-peer group therapy
- radical honesty
- cognitive video and computer games
- implicit association test (IAT)
These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.
All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.) Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development, neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. In other words we can re-engineer and re-program the brain’s operating system and its “apps”, even though much of all that is unconscious. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.
We need a diversity of experimental colleges and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.
“Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”)” (Wikipedia: college)
Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, at xTopia U we see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.
[Portions of Podkayne’s dialog by libramoon.]
Related PRA 2010 topics:
TIMN in 20 minutes: social evolution — past, present, and future, (YouTube.com) This video offers an overview of the TIMN framework: its focus on social evolution (past, present, future), its construction around four cardinal forms of organization (tribes, institutions, markets, networks), its system dynamics, and its future implications.
RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)
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|brodix on Being (Multi)Human|
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