That’s So Second Millennium
CNAG: Happiness

CNAG: Happiness

January 30, 2019

Cheating a bit today, since this issue goes far beyond the realm of merely New Age concepts into the way the words "happy" and "happiness" have mutated in definition over the centuries. It's not unlike the situation with the word "substance." There is all the difference in the world between Thomas Aquinas' definition of "substantio" or the "subst-" in "transubstantiation" and the idea of a "chemical substance." Likewise, Boethius' or Augustine's "felix" apparently is an almost complete stranger to the modern definition of "happy" as, most notably, a fairly shallow positive emotion.

The classical philosophical definition of happy does not even make the cut in Webster's nine-subpart definition listed above. For Plato, Aristotle, and centuries of philosophers down to the present, the words cognate to "felix" or "happy" were used to describe a human being living in the best way possible, with all the virtuous habits and use of reason necessary for that to happen.

So far was happiness from being one particular emotion, it was possible to debate whether you could know whether a man was truly happy until after he was dead, and all his choices had been made and their consequences tallied up.

I stumbled across a podcast by a local priest recently in which he gave a sweeping overview of Western history's idea of God or the gods and God's will. Interestingly, he titled it "On Happiness." In it, he comments that the classical and high medieval sense was that God's will was simply for human beings to reach this optimal state of happiness, and God's laws were means to that end. Bishop Barron likes to quote one of the ante-Nicene Fathers, Ignatius of Antioch perhaps, as saying, "The glory of God is man fully alive." This gave way, Fr. Hollowell comments, to the nominalist late medieval and early modern idea that God is so "free" that He cannot possibly have been somehow constrained to give us laws that were merely good for us; they had to be given for some inscrutable reason of divine randomness, confused with freedom.

So very many of us remaining religious folk, as Fr. Hollowell notes (quite insightfully, I think), are just going through the motions and doing this and abstaining from that just because "those are the rules," with little if any meaningful sense of why those rules actually benefit us. It's a major bridge to cross for many of us to return to that state of innocent and childlike trust that God means the best for us, despite all the pain that we go through: the pain that comes and finds us no matter what we do, and the pain we incur turning aside from things that are against the rules... or that, eventually, we really have come to learn are bad for us.

Many things are on the other side of that bridge. There is not an end to suffering, but there is a sense that both the suffering and everything else has a purpose, and that sense of purpose leads to more frequent experience of the feelings of joy, contentment... possibly even happiness.

CNAG is the Catholic-New Age Glossary... not backed by Webster's or any other authority. These meditations are here on That's So Second Millennium because they are an attempt to find maximum harmony between different strands of psychology and spirituality as they are being explored and lived out in Western culture today. It flows from a respect for people's reasons for doing what they do and thinking what they think.

Episode 044 - The Brain and The Pain of Being Human

Episode 044 - The Brain and The Pain of Being Human

January 28, 2019

In this episode, we expand on our introduction to the brain by discussing some theories - ranging from well-documented to rather speculative - about the specific structures of the brain that are active (or less active) in situations ranging from autism to depression, stress, and trauma.


At the end we spend a few minutes on a preliminary critique of the materialist reductionary attitude ("interpretation" is too grandiose a word for it) toward brain science by many of its practitioners and reporters. Free will, for example, is not an illusion just because the physical part of the brain where it happens can be injured and we can be deprived of it... but much more on such neurophilosophical issues as the year progresses.

Post Christian: Legends

Post Christian: Legends

January 26, 2019

It came as something of a shock, when I was writing that first post in this series, to see that idea slide into place: I shoved so much stuff, over so many years, that I knew was fiction into my cortex that it crowded out faith. I think the elements were present in disparate parts of my awareness for a long time. They may even have gotten together and made out one evening, a long time ago. I couldn't say for sure.

I picked up the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven, as I traditionally estimate. It was before we moved out of the old house, for I can remember sitting in a chair before those thick brown drapes over those nine foot windows some summer evening and reading. I had seen the books on the shelves for years, and had worked up to them. I must have read the Swiss Family Robinson six times. Still, the Lord of the Rings was three books that size... a major investment of time.

Over the years I probably read the Lord of the Rings fifteen times; the last time was probably almost twenty years ago. I hardly need to read them again. I've watched the movies, and I could sit with you and explain every detail that was changed between the books and the films and its significance to the arcs of the characters involved. I read the Silmarillion three or four times; the Unfinished Tales, some of them another ten to twenty times, some less.

I was obsessed. I had to know every detail, watch the progress of Tolkien's whole subcreation from beginning to the end, where it tried to merge into the real world... an interesting trick.

I think Tolkien is at the near end of a bridge back into the former age. Go back further, and the exercise of storytelling clearly "starts" to follow a different set of norms from those of today. Today, every writer and reader knows they are making something up. In the past, it seemed oddly necessary to at least keep up the appearance of speaking of the real world, that one's tales really happened long ago. I wonder how often classical writers ever believed they were writing fiction at all.

The other side of that sense is that ancient and medieval and early modern writers chose only to write things that they at least thought could really have happened. Vergil did not sit down to use his prodigious skill on a fictional tale; he pulled out a strand of putative Roman history to spin into his tapestry. Even the writer of Judith, who seems pretty clearly to have had no actual historical event to serve as the core of his story, has nevertheless woven several recognizable real world elements (Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, the geography of Judea) into his morality play.

This whole complex of ideas cannot help but be the subject of hundreds and thousands of doctoral dissertations at this point. I only mention it to place my own experience in perspective. No one in the centuries before Christ, or most of the centuries after, spent time filling his or her head with tales obviously spun out of whole cloth about galaxies long, long ago and far, far away. Now we live in cultures where tens of percent of the population do, I prominently among them. I have even brewed up my own such tales away in secret where almost no one has yet seen them.

What will come of it all?

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

CNAG: Frequency / Vibration

CNAG: Frequency / Vibration

January 23, 2019

Definitely the word that generates the most eye rolls per appearance. I have something of an allergy to physics metaphors that I didn't create myself; that's a character defect. There is also the chilling sense that I get that people like Jen Sincero and Danielle LaPorte and so forth in some sense think they're talking literally about the frequency of... something... vibrating: "enthusiasm vibrates at a higher frequency than..."


Unless and until you can show me the plot of frequency versus mood or attitude, tell me how many hertz are involved, and show me what is actually vibrating, I'mma go on considering it to be a metaphor.


Frequency is tied up with the law of attraction. Apparently you attract things by "raising your frequency" to match the thing, or type of thing, you want to have in your life. This raising of frequency is accomplished by setting expectations and taking external actions to reinforce them: changing how you dress, the decor on your walls, the way you eat, and the people you choose to spend time with (that last being the most difficult and the one where the fewest suggestions are given!).


Underneath the pseudo-scientific name of "frequency" I think there's a ton of insight lurking. It's so clear that different groups of people set very different expectations for one another. My neighbor down the road hangs out with a biker club on the weekends. That's his world. In that world it makes sense for him to spend several thousand dollars out of his near-minimum wages on a motorcycle. In my world that makes no sense whatever, and I think that Triumph motorcycle he has his eye on is surpassingly ugly. These are things that don't admit of right or wrong answers. I could choose (it would have been easier to start when I was 16) to go live with him in that world. I'd pick up the rules eventually. Maybe I'd enjoy it. I don't know, and never will.


Yet there are worlds I would have liked to explore, and maybe still will. In college I was very torn up about dancing. There is something so appealing to me about learning an "actual" dance, like swing or salsa or two-step, and that's true despite the fact that I am a complete outsider to that world. I made several efforts to cross over, but I was always so cripplingly self-conscious that I withdrew in defeat, not to make another attempt again for months. I still feel that longing to experience the music, move my body, cooperate with a partner in creating something elegant, no matter how ephemeral. I would have to "raise my frequency" and set some expectations in order to do that. I would have to center myself very squarely on the truth that it's acceptable for me to make mistakes and learn. Further, maybe I could put some Fred Astaire posters up, join a Meetup group, find a place and make myself go every Friday for three months or a year, and finally find myself on the other side. I think I'd enjoy it. I'd like to find out.


I see significant parallels between this concept of "frequency" and my attitude toward God. It was a shocking revelation when it finally hit me that I have been thinking about God's attitude toward me all wrong. I know that for myself I thought of God as permanently displeased with me, permanently expecting something of me despite the fact that I had no idea how to get it done, completely unwilling to help me, and permanently ready to condemn me for it. I realized that I thought of the whole Christian concept that nothing good happens without grace as hinging on whether a random and capricious God chooses to give you grace or not. I shudder when I think of all the Christian and Muslim groups that apparently think that believing God to be sovereign and free means that He is essentially random and unpredictable.


My mind's eye trails off over a vista of entire societies with crippling father issues...


In any case, that kind of voluntarism (if I may so use the term) I have concluded is inimical to a faith that works. A faith that works, I think, abides by this augmented version of the Second Step:


"Came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity, and would if He were sought."


Grace is not about whether God is willing to give it. He is. He has chosen to be consistent, if you will, has promised, and who are we to gainsay that promise? The choice is on my side, whether to "raise my frequency" and step out into the fog and trust that the grace I need will come, and that whatever failure I experience when I try to do the next right thing I see is just part of the plan and altogether acceptable to a loving God.

CNAG is the Catholic-New Age Glossary... not backed by Webster's or any other authority. These meditations are here on That's So Second Millennium because they are an attempt to find maximum harmony between different strands of psychology and spirituality as they are being explored and lived out in Western culture today. It flows from a respect for people's reasons for doing what they do and thinking what they think.

Episode 043 - Introduction to the Brain

Episode 043 - Introduction to the Brain

January 21, 2019

In this episode, we lay out the basic groundwork for future discussions of the human brain.


The brain we humans have apparently evolved in three stages. This can't help but be a tremendous simplification, but it's a commonly encountered statement and seems to have considerable explanatory power.


The lowest part of the brain, the brain stem (the medulla, etc.) and the cerebellum, control unconscious processes, most of which we cannot take into conscious control even if we want to. Often this is called the "lizard" or "reptile brain."


A series of little suborgans, the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdalae (a - myg ' - da - la, the good Latin pronunciation, for the singular apparently; and my Webster's unabridged also informs me that it just means "almond shaped thing"), putamen (that habit-storing part I could not remember during the episode), and a few other parts form the limbic system, that communicates between the senses and the body, and that serves critical functions for things like emotion and memory that we share with mammals.


The upper part of the brain, the big part in human brains, is the cerebrum. Its regions are referred to as cortex / cortices or lobes. We have large volumes of the brain dedicated to visual and auditory processing, motor skills, and the whole front of the brain is where the neural work of our most human capabilities occurs: judgment, reasoning, wondering, creativity, consciousness.


The following two books informed the discussion today:


The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk


Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter


I cannot recommend The Body Keeps the Score highly enough. It starts out as a discussion of PTSD, but it grows organically into a discussion of problems that all children, and therefore all of us, are liable to have, and ways that are being discovered to bring both brain and body to peace.


On the other hand, Mapping the Mind is only intermittently good. The first hundred pages I found rough sledding, with little sense the author understood the facts being hauled out and stacked up. It got better. The last few chapters betray the common, poorly thought through materialist reductionism common in the field, no surprise, but the content of the final 200+ pages is mostly good. Autism, depression, and addiction come up, although the stock in trade is discussion people with bizarre, tragic, but fascinatingly specific brain damage and what those episodes suggest about how all the different mental aspects of being human are spread about the brain.

Post Christian: State and Religion

Post Christian: State and Religion

January 19, 2019

The "Post Christian" series will continue the line of thought that I started in "Why Do Westerners Really Think Science and Faith Are Opposed?" To sum up my hunches from that post in a few lines, I would say that this perceived opposition derives partly from misguided attempts at intellectual piety in the late medieval and early modern period whose aftereffects are still with us today. However, I really think it is more a displaced form of punishment of the Church for the sins of its clergy and its ostensible allies in secular political power, in the present and in the past, for being such massive hypocrites and living in such obvious contrast with the example and teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles, their early followers, and those who still answer that call today.


I noted in my first post that it was surprising that the Constantinian experiment of making Christianity a state religion lasted as long as it did. That's true from the perspective of the New Testament and the early Church. It could hardly be more obvious, from the canonical books of the N.T., that the movement Jesus of Nazareth started was never intended to be allied with a state. Jesus in the Gospel of John deliberately dodges secular kingship. When Pilate confronts him about being the Messiah and therefore claiming kingship, Jesus comments that his kingdom is not here, in this life. Luke and Paul pick up most particularly on this Jesus' concern for the poor and his habit of hanging about with them rather than the movers and shakers of political life, and they recommend this behavior as an example to those who follow him.


Of course, the very word "secular" comes from the Latin "saeculum" and we inherit it from Catholic thought, distinguishing the "saeculum" or this age from the more important concerns of eternity. The union of Church and state was always precarious, even in its arguable golden and silver ages of the fourth century and the high medieval period. The question is why this union was attempted at all.


The answer, it seems to me, is an enormously strong human tendency toward seeing service to the gods and service to the community or state as merely two sides of the same smooth round inseparable concept. Seen from this perspective, it was inevitable that if Christianity gathered enough of a following, states would grow up where the experiment of bridging the unbridgeable chasm would be tried.


I tend to assume everyone has read the same things I have. Perhaps it's that dash of Asperger's syndrome I have long wondered about... In any case, let me draw out a few parallels just for the sake of reminders about how differently ancient societies worked:


Homer's Iliad and Odyssey shaped the ancient Hellenistic and Roman imagination in pervasive ways. In the Iliad, of course, the gods are all completely preoccupied with the political struggle unfolding on the shore of Asia Minor, intervening in messy and violent ways on behalf of their clients. Human and divine affairs are sewn together very tightly.


In ancient Rome, among the many elected offices that successful men of means pursued on the cursus honorum were any number of niche priesthoods. As a contemporary Catholic this sounds quite bizarre, but perhaps my Protestant brethren do not find it quite so odd. In any case, these priests were clearly part of the political establishment and had their bureaucratic functions, and conversely the praetors and consuls and censors had their own priestly functions.


A casual read of some of the Chinese classics, such as the writings of Confucius, Mencius, and even Lao Tzu, makes it clear that the Chinese mind was formed by thinkers who expended considerable effort seeking understanding of how best to govern. Spiritual affairs and the matters of the gods are all subjected toward that end in Confucianism, and even the more inward and mystical Taoism had no shortage of adages to guide the statesman. (It is no wonder that Chinese governments down to this very day seem to have no idea what a religious movement not rigidly controlled by state bureaucrats could even be, aside from a rebellion.)


I could go on endlessly, of course. Politics so easily dominates the human mind that if something is excluded from political process, as religion has been in the West, it inevitably leaves the awareness of many people. By the same token, if something begins to loom large in public consciousness, it begins to be debated in the halls of power whether it needs or wants to be or not.


Such, broadly speaking, has been the fate of Christianity.


The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

Louis Braille, Catholic scholar

Louis Braille, Catholic scholar

January 16, 2019

Louis Braille
4 Jan 1809 - 6 Jan 1852

Louis Braille was blinded in one eye in a childhood accident. Blindness in his other eye quickly followed. He was fortunate to live in the village of Coupvray, only about 40 km from Paris, and so was eventually able, about age 10, to attend a school there for the blind.

A curious note: the school was founded by Valentin Hauy. That combination of name and era sets off the memory bell for me, as a mineralogist. It turns out that Valentin Hauy, the philanthropist and political activist, was the brother of Rene Just Hauy, one of the real founders of mineralogy. (As in so many things, Nicolaus Steno was a century ahead of his time in proposing the law of constant interfacial angles. It was not until the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century that chemistry and geology caught up to this insight and began to make further progress.)

V. Hauy had devised a way to help blind people read by means of creating raised letters whose outlines could be felt, but it was a difficult system. Braille, who was a brilliant student and put to work as a teacher already at 15, learned a new system from Charles Barbier, which had the disadvantage of being a syllabary rather than an alphabet. However, it had the advantage of relying on easily distinguished (and written, with simple equipment) raised dots rather than whole letters. Braille assembled his own system. He tightened up Barbier's 12 dots to bundles of 6, and made the system an alphabet. It was first introduced to the world in 1829, when Braille was only 20. The system only took off slowly, and was widely accepted around the world only after Braille's untimely death.

Louis Braille suffered from bleeding from the late 1830s on. He relinquished most of his teaching duties by 1840, but retained a lifelong passion for music right up until his death. He was a frequent organist at parishes in Paris. In early December 1851, he began hemorrhaging, and a series of further hemorrhages led to his death the following month. He had been 43 for two days.
I cannot help but be amazed by the life of someone like Braille, who suffered such a debilitating injury at a time when his society was just barely beginning to provide some sort of help, hope, and future for the blind. He jumped on his chance with both feet and made the absolute most of it.

Louis, you gave light to your fellows, despite the darkness you yourself had to endure. It's hard to believe that you left this life on the feast of Epiphany, when we remember the Light coming into the world, entirely by coincidence. Pray for me. I long for a share of the spirit that animated you.

Episode 042 - TSSM in 2019, part 2

Episode 042 - TSSM in 2019, part 2

January 14, 2019

What sense can we make of the ancient and medieval idea that "the soul is the form of the body" in the light of contemporary neuroscience and psychology?

Highlight this idea's differences from Platonic and Cartesian dualism.

History of psychology as a discipline. Psychology has not evolved (a) master paradigm(s) that compel the bulk of the field to adhere to them the way that plate tectonics did for geology, Newtonian classical physics and then quantum and relativity did for physics, etc.

Peace of Soul (Fulton Sheen) remark that psychology has been furtively recycling Christian ideas and passing them off as new for a long time

Examining the convergence points of the advice for living from the Bible and Tradition, modern psychology, and the contemporary self-help / New Age-y movement that continues to spread and adapt through large sectors of modern culture.

Self-esteem, humility...

Confidence, faith, negative tapes...

Twelve Step spirituality (Richard Rohr and the intense overlap between 12 Step and Catholic spirituality)

Even many of us who are explicitly Christian have internalized a kind of Lutheran / Jansenist belief that we are so terrible that, in essence, God made a mistake in going to all this effort to save us, because we're not worth it. This is one of a number of areas in contemporary Catholic and Christian culture where we have let our understanding of Scripture and Tradition get very warped and imbalanced.

Issues surrounding how the Christian and scientific understanding of universal history could fit together.

What will "the end of the world" look like? Will it be the end of the whole universe or not? Will there be human colonies on other planets, orbiting other stars? How would the Apocalypse play out then?


You can find That's So Second Millennium at all of these places:

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Please be in touch with your feedback, ideas for new episodes, and conversation of any kind!

CNAG: Law of Attraction

CNAG: Law of Attraction

January 11, 2019

Let's do a really scary one.

Law of Attraction. So far as I can tell, this is a very, ummm, "results-oriented" take on the virtues of faith and hope. Jen Sincero circles around this a fair bit, not always calling it by that name. It involves picturing some situation, way of life, person, or thing that you really want in really vivid detail, surrounding yourself with pictures and other reminders of it, dressing and acting and talking as if it were already present and the way you want yourself to look and feel in that situation, and trusting that "Source Energy" or "the Universe" will "start pulling it in."

Another one of Jen's kind of terrifying phrases that really stuck in my head was "having a craft day with God." To be honest, I took it seriously enough that the other day I mashed it up with a suggestion from this little booklet on prayers and devotion to St. Joseph that I did the following:

  • I found a holy card image of the boy Jesus and Joseph doing some carpentry (looking a lot more like a happy father and son team than anything in MY personal experience).
  • I attached a list of five things I want to change about my life down the right side:
    • Victory over addictive habits
    • Greater sense of closeness to God
    • Figuring out more what this "love" business is and actually doing some of it
    • Focus, diligence, and peace in using my gifts
    • Freedom to love instead of codependency
  • I made this my desktop and laptop wallpaper.

Anecdotal evidence and all, but I'll let you know how it goes...

There are at least four possibilities here, which sound somewhat mutually exclusive, although as is usually the case in this marvelously intricate reality we inhabit, they really aren't.

1: This is hokum. The people who believe in the Law of Attraction are just the lucky ones. Random processes brought them enough of what they wanted, their confirmation bias kicked in, and now they trumpet their good fortune as if they actually did anything to cause it.

2: This is dressing up a very reasonable psychological effect as New Age mumbo-jumbo. If you focus yourself enough on something, and also think positive instead of looking for ways to self-sabotage, you'll capitalize on the actual opportunities that come up instead of tuning them out and making sure that the ones you see don't help you.

3: Sometimes this is actually black magic. There are demonic forces quite happy to divert you from God by showering you with enough wealth, sexual pleasure, power, or what have you and doing it in such a way that you can fool yourself into thinking that these things are being provided for you by a benevolent spirit.

Cathy Heller (whom by now I love dearly) and Jen Sincero have said a lot about money not being the root of all evil and having a negative set of attitudes about money. A great deal of what they say has to be true; I absolutely believe there is a sort of "starving artist complex" that keeps people from asking a reasonable fee or wage for what they do, and keeps them in crappy situations making those crappy wages, and that, further, this attitude is due in large part to a post-Christian, post-Marxist vague sense of the ickiness of wealth.

So far as I know, even the New Testament does not say "money is the root of all evil."

It does, however, say "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10; see also Hebrews 13:5, and just basically listen to how this Jesus guy EVER talks about wealthy people in his parables).

4: Often this is actually more or less the case. Although obviously you run into difficulties believing that a good God will give you things that are actually bad for you, the aforementioned sort of hang-ups keep a lot of people from asking for the things that they actually legitimately want, things that Jesus of Nazareth actively assured us that his Father wants very much to give us.

Lord knows that I, personally, concluded as a boy that basically everything I wanted and longed for in life was something that God wanted me not to have. I can testify that that attitude got me exactly nowhere, certainly nowhere that involved anything I would recognize as virtue or holiness or loving people or helping them in any useful sort of way. I have been a miserable failure at a lot of things, probably precisely because I have been just straight miserable and convinced that every desire I ever had was evil.

I'm committing myself to experimenting with a very different approach for the other half of my life.

CNAG is the Catholic-New Age Glossary... not backed by Webster's or any other authority. These meditations are here on That's So Second Millennium because they are an attempt to find maximum harmony between different strands of psychology and spirituality as they are being explored and lived out in Western culture today. It flows from a respect for people's reasons for doing what they do and thinking what they think.

Episode 041 - TSSM in 2019

Episode 041 - TSSM in 2019

January 7, 2019

Themes we'd like to grapple with in the Year of Our Lord, 2019, and beyond:


Last year was largely about the intellectual challenge leveled by many against religion, and we will continue talking about that as the podcast moves forward.

Paul's mission this year to work through Road to Reality

This year we also want to broaden the scope to include places where religion and faith converge, which means we're going to discuss psychology.

Looking forward to the SCS conference topic for this coming year: what it is, and has been, to be human. Neuroscience and what it implies for anthropology, and where it meets Catholic Christian anthropology coming the other way.

What is consciousness, anyway? What parts of the brain seem to be involved, and what do they do?

What is free will, anyway? Where are those breakpoints where the soul would have to affect the body in order for that to even work?

Crisis points in the way people in the post-Christian West approach the world.

Center for Ethics & Culture annual conference in 2018: Wilfred McClay & John Waters

"we care about everything, but without God... we have responsibility for everything, but we know that we are flawed and unable to provide solutions"

Post-Christian in this context includes both people who have explicitly renounced the Christian faith of the West and those who have a Christian identity in their back pocket somewhere but in reality are not relying on Jesus Christ or his teachings to guide their lives in any conscious way.

Christianity is a demanding religion. If you suck away all the grace and help it promises, but leave some of its demands for social justice or purity of intention, you have a recipe for constant internal condemnation.



CEC video

Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma) on “Guilt in the Immanent Frame”, and John Waters on “The Importance of Not Being God: A Higher Power Is Indispensable for Human Beings and Human Societies”


No, not THAT John Waters.

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