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    Tainter: Collapse of Complex Societies

    In 2005, I read the books, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (who was all over public TV with Guns, Germs and Steel) and A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. I found them fairly similar in theme, both dealing with Easter Island and other collapsed societies. Both books were discussed on The Oil Drum, but other commenters kept bringing up The Collapse of Complex Societies, a textbook by Dr Joseph Tainter, as a more thorough treatment.

    I never got around to buying or reading his book, but Tainter's keynote talk delivered to the 2010 International Conference on Sustainability: Energy, Economy, and Environment is on YouTube. His laser pointer is hard to follow, but the powerpoint slides are pretty clear.  

    Part One

    Part Two

    Part Three

    Part Four

    Part Five



    Thank you for this Donal. It goes right along with what I was chatting about tonight.

    Did you have reactions to his presentation, Donal or others?  Did you find anything he said especially provocative?  Surprising? 

    I want to watch it again tonight before I comment too much, but ...

    There was one point where he said conservation wasn't very effective at keeping complex systems going, then hemmed and hawed that he wasn't actually criticizing conservationists. That was depressing.

    The parallels between Rome supporting a large military and living off accumulated solar energy from conquests and the American situation are awfully obvious.

    His inclusion of retirement and health care costs for boomers at the top of his list of 8 - 10 serious problems doesn't seem to be based in any right-wing ideology. That was depressing, too.

    His statement that Diocletian's and Constantine's responses to Rome's problems were logical and diligent, but failed to stop collapse, makes me think that Obama might be seen the same way someday.

    For those who are interested in the summary, from Wikipedia:

    According to Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial "energy" subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth). When a society confronts a "problem," such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge. Tainter, who first (ch. 1) identifies seventeen examples of rapid collapse of societies, applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture.

    For example, as Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita energy availability dropped. The Romans "solved" this problem by conquering their neighbours to appropriate their energy surpluses (in concrete forms, as metals, grain, slaves, etc.). However, as the Empire grew, the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew with it. Eventually, this cost grew so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures could not be solved by the acquisition of more territory. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion by Domitian and Constantine the Great only led to an ever greater strain on the population. The empire was split into two halves, of which the western soon fragmented into smaller units. The eastern half, being wealthier, was able to survive longer, and did not collapse but instead succumbed slowly and piecemeal, because unlike the western empire it had powerful neighbors able to take advantage of its weakness.

    We often assume that the collapse of the western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off. Archeological evidence from human bones indicates that average nutrition actually improved after the collapse in many parts of the former Roman Empire. Average individuals may have benefited because they no longer had to invest in the burdensome complexity of empire. Tainter notes that in the west, local populations in many cases greeted the barbarians as liberators.

    Tainter begins by categorizing and examining the often inconsistent explanations that have been offered for collapse in the literature.In Tainter's view, while invasions, crop failures, disease or environmental degradation may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is an economic one, inherent in the structure of society rather than in external shocks which may batter them: diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. For contrast, Jared Diamond's 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, focuses on environmental mismanagement as a cause of collapse. Finally, Tainter musters modern statistics to show that marginal returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation are diminishing today. The globalised modern world is subject to many of the same stresses that brought older societies to ruin.

    However, Tainter is not entirely apocalyptic: "When some new input to an economic system is brought on line, whether a technical innovation or an energy subsidy, it will often have the potential at least temporarily to raise marginal productivity" (p. 124). Thus, barring continual conquest of your neighbors (which is always subject to diminishing returns), innovation that increases productivity is – in the long run – the only way out of the dismal science dilemma of declining marginal returns on added investments in complexity.

    It is an interesting approach which I think can add some value to any discourse on how to address the current issues.  One thing which seems to come from this is approach tends to facilitiate looking at the issue from a singular country perspective.  The world may not be entirely "flat," but it is becoming more so with every day.  One could argue the current global situation is just one huge empire that is in a (perpetual) process of fragmentation and consolidation. The layers are being added by numerous countries, multi-national corporations and NGOs daily as the "empire" goes through its convulsions.

    I would add that this empire (one huge complex society - in the way the LA basin is huge city even though there are a bunch of citites and counties claiming their existence) is that it is not just a complex society is a complex adaptive system.  History can show us how others behaved and responded to situations, and human nature being what it is, can offer insights and some predictability about how we will behave and respond in the future.  But in the end we (and our societies) are not destined to any particular outcome.   Just taking Tainter's lingo, there is a possibility that in the near future some new inputs to the economic system is brought on line and takes us all down a path we can't see right now. 

    I must say that I am attracted to this by the rigor of Tainter’s temperament.  On the other hand I am always hesitant to accept reliance on historical arguments since little of what we call “history” is settled thought.  And I am very dubious about any attempts at meta-historical formulations. Having said that I think Tainter’s thoughts seem provocative and stimulating.  I look forward to reading more of him to understand the systems analysis he has developed to support his ideas.  Having more questions than answers is not a bad place to be.

     Thanks D.

    I listen to this stuff, but when he hits specifics, and comes down out of the grand doom-laden pronouncements, he is... wrong.

    e.g. He announces that innovations will become... less productive. Oh really? He makes statements like, "This was first noticed in 1879." Which kindof makes me lose confidence in him, because, I haven't really noticed that innovation and productivity thing dying away since 1879.

    Take cars. The development of the hybrid car over the last decade offers us the chance to boost the mileage of vehicles by 50% and more, depending on the model. Dozens and dozens of models are now hybridized, or are being hybridized. There has been NO other innovation over the last 80 years which increased productivity this much. 

    Now. If you are to support this guy, you need a way to beat this argument. If you can't, you need to accept that probably the #1 user of fossil fuels - the car - has just been innovated upon, in a way which massively reduces its energy use.

    I can give you the same for home heating. A furnace is going to operate at 60%-100% efficiency (if gas or electric, etc.) But if you use a new heat pump, you can take those same energy inputs, and get 300%-400% as much output. It's a relatively new technology, but there are already millions operating in the world - including the Empire State Building, Buckingham Palace and the Bush Ranch. And again, I can think of nothing which increased productivity so much  in the field as this.

    And then he uses some bizarr-o measure of PATENTS to productivity, and says wind and solar are approaching technological maturity? Look, if the price of solar is 80 cents/kwh, and you can shove it down over 40 years to 40 cents and then 20 cents then 10 cents, but then it's 10 years just to shove it down to 8 cents, this guy says you're a loser. The fact that you've just shoved solar's price - and the price of energy - lower than earlier technologies, and we now have a renewable source of very cheap energy, is completely lost to his chart.

    In fact, he'll use it as an example of why we're doomed and all gonna die!!

    I didn't watch all his presentations, but I'd love to hear him on the Internet. Somehow, it didn't make his Top 10. But the Internet is absolutely massively opening the door for faster and deeper and wider innovation. It just... is. And it's not a "narrowing," it's a massive widening. So... what's he on about? 

    Also, his stuff seemed pretty ferociously Amero-centric, frankly. He talks about all the problems which can't be solved, except a lot of other countries aren't so worried about some of these, because they have - social complexity and all - done fairly well on them. 

    In short, a lot of this stuff is Mood Music for Americans, and it's just being tarted up as "science" or "history" when it really isn't. It just hits the right tones. He throws up lots of cool quotes, but I can't see where he's actually got much bite on the detailed reality of the day.

    Frankly, I've come to hate these guys. Their grand theories, that can't handle things that are right in front of their noses, only REINFORCE people's sense of helplessness. And that's a dangerous thing. 

    So. Let me put it this way. Hybrid cars. His theory needs to answer it, or be thrown out. Because it's a great big innovation, in a great big energy-using, important field, and it involves the very very smart handling of complexity. 

    Oh you're just jealous because with a rap like his he gets a lot more casual sex than you or I do.  The real question is "Does he use Viagra?"  If he does then ipso facto he has proven that innovation can indeed counteract the forces of collapse. His whole thesis is debunked.  "A great big innovation" indeed.

    Today's hybrids are certainly kinder to the environment, but cost a lot to build. Toyota still says they are losing money on the Prius - they may be breaking even - and anyone that buys one is spending more than they will save on gas. Hybrids will probably only make economic sense here when fuel reaches European prices. As far as innovation, the hybrid concept has been around since at least 1917, when railroads started using diesel-electric locomotives because steam locomotives were polluting the city air. They had electric cars then, too. And electric trolleys. So we're using innovation from quite a while ago.

    Lord Kelvin thought up the heat pump concept in the 1850s with practical geothermal heat pumps built in the 1940s when plastic piping, a fossil fuel product, became practical. And even geothermal isn't as efficient as passive solar heating, which has been used by smart builders for thousands of years.

    BTW, we have more efficient home heating, but the energy we saved now goes to more cooling, heating water and running gizmos:

    A lot of today's innovation happened a long time ago - it has just taken us a century, or more, to gear up and implement it. Tainter claims:

    We will need to allocate more and more resources — dollars and people — to research and development - this seems unlikely as we cut back on education and award degrees based on class and jobs on nepotism.
    We can continue innovation only by taking resources from other major sections of the economy — for example, health care, defense, transportation, and infrastructure - we've already cut way back on maintenance of infrastructure. Lack of infrastructure will make transportation difficult. Poor transportation will probably discourage the sort of teamwork that leads to innovation. We certainly seem to be discussing cutbacks in health care. Defense still gets their share.

    Nope. Wrong. And wrong and wrong and wrong. Let's start there. 

    1. While the first versions may have, hybrids today do not cost a lot more to build. The all-in price - when the automakers are not adding in luxury items for upscale buyers - is down to $2-$4,000 for the fully-fledged hybrid (Camry, Fusion, Civic, Escape, Prius, etc.), a gap that is shrinking each year.

    Alliance Bernstein put out a wonderful research study a few years back, in which they described the actual process whereby Toyota assembles hybrids and conventional cars. Thought you'd like this:

    "A tour of the Toyota plant that assembles the Prius along with seven other models was telling: The Prius only requires 4 new parts and 11 additional procedures (out of 200), or 5% additional complexity; several assembly functions take only 120 seconds versus 60 seconds for a similar non-hybrid vehicle."

    Now, ask yourself. As a nation, as a world, can we add 1 to 2 kwhs worth of batteries, and small electric motors to our vehicles, adding in 4 new parts packs and 11 procedures, adding 60 seconds to production time, if it will cut our total gasoline consumption by 30%-60%? 

    The difficulty is NOT the actual, practical change-over, and it's here I become so angry at these con-men selling grand charts on innovation and such, it's big money and big industry and big politics and the barriers they throw up. 

    4 new parts. 11 new procedures. 60 more seconds. Cut gasoline use by 30%-60%.

    In fact, Ford has now started eliminating the premium for some models, while Toyota is looking at eliminating the premium even for its Plug-In Prius. As a buyer, just avoid the super high-end car models and idiot trucks that they hybridize and add $10,000 to the price.

    2. Toyota has paid its upfront costs and is no longer losing money on the Prius. Any technological innovation has to pay for the cost of its development, Toyota has borne it - pretty much effectively on behalf of ALL the automakers - and now... it's a moneymaker. In fact, Toyota is in the process of changing ALL its vehicles over to hybrids, adding 11 new models this year alone - which I can assure you, they wouldn't do if they were losing money on hybrids.

    So how's about we drop that myth too?

    3. They will also, in fact, save you money, today. A lot of the US automotive press, based out of Detroit and tight with the Big 3 and the autoparts makers, has been churning out the articles for years, saying hybrids will never pay. In Europe, the auto press pushes more for... diesel. Funny, that. Anyhoo. If you drive 15,000 miles per year, and your regular car would get a solid 30 mpg, while a similarly equipped hybrid would get 50, and today's price of gas is $3.70/gallon, then.... you save $740 annually. If the premium is $3-$4000, then your payback is 4-6 years? Adjust the numbers as you will, but best to try and pick similar cars with similar options.

    4. Surely you can't be arguing that just because something was imagined 2000 years ago or sketched out 150 years ago, that this somehow constitutes the "innovation." As an argument, that's absurd, simply because I can say, "Hey great, people imagined flying 2000 years ago and somebody sketched it 400 years ago, and so, woe is us, we haven't a clue compared to those guys, the Earth is in inevitable decline, but oh yeah, in the meantime, I actually figured out HOW to do it, and then I BUILT it, and can now let you fly too for CHEAP."

    Nobody I know in the field credits the first guy who thought of something as having done "the innovation" and after that, it's all just, as you say, people who have to "gear up and implement it."

    5. On household energy use, no actually, the energy we saved didn't just go to more cooling, hot water and running gizmos. That idea just fits with the "woe is us" storyline. In fact, the EIA shows drops of 12%-28% in per person use, per household, per square foot and per building between 1980 and 2001 (which also happened in the 1970's and in the last decade, but I thought I'd stick to your time period.) So.... how to explain your chart, if it wasn't "more gizmos?" Population growth in the US. How about we factor that in? If we're going to talk innovation and productivity and efficiency and all that, let's at least get that most basic factor out there.

    6. The education and infrastructure comments are precisely what I was talking about, Amerocentric. The world has never been more educated, never had so many people reading and producing so much science. Never have so many had roads, cars and - beyond that - the Internet.

    The fact that Americans have a political system which devotes more time to war than to roads, well... let me assure you, that's not always and everywhere the case. And come on, "poor transportation will probably discourage the sort of teamwork that leads to innovation??" what sort of garbage is this? The Internet! International students! Hundreds of millions of people learning English and entering college worldwide! 

    Hybrid engines need rare earths that are getting ... rare. The cost of their nickel batteries have gone up about 400% since the first model. They include batteries and two electric motors and a lot of electronics that gas-only cars don't have. Toyota doesn't publish their numbers, of course.

    Around here a Prius lists for about $6,000 more than a larger Camry and $8,000 more than a smaller Corolla. says that Prius costs $1,071 per year, Corolla $1,847 and Camry $2,062. So it would take just over six years to make up the difference with a Camry, and just over ten years to make up the difference with a Corolla. And you're financing the extra purchase price.

    A Volt lists for $20,000 or more than its cousin the Cruze. says that the Volt costs between $594 and $1543, while the Cruze costs $1912 per year. Even using the low Volt number, it would take 15 years to justify buying the Volt for better mileage.

    In 1897, "the London Electric Cab Company began to provide service in the city, using cabs powered by a 40 cell battery and a three horsepower electric motor. Dubbed the “Bersey Cab” after its inventor, Walter Bersey, the cab could go up to fifty miles before the battery had to be recharged. Ferdinand Porsche developed the first electric and internal combustion engine in 1898." Victor Wouk worked on hybrids in the 1960s. It isn't a new idea. If we hadn't had cheap West Texas oil, we might have been driving hybrids a long time ago.

    Yes population increased, but Share of energy used by appliances and consumer electronics increases in U.S. homes, too.

    I do tend to be Americentric because I kind of live here. I'm not very impressed with education today and I'm not the only one with doubts:

    India Graduates Millions, But Too Few Are Fit to Hire

    More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality

    What probably impressed me the most about Tainter is that he was unfailingly polite.

    1. "Rare earths" are not, actually, "rare." At all. The Chinese outcompeted everyone else in production, and after the other nations had closed their mines, China decided to give its own manufacturers a boost, by keeping rare earth supplies at home. Now, the world is reopening old mines, accessing other sources, and getting out of their use altogether. Even in rare earth world, China only has 37% of global supplies. 

    2. The cost of NiMH batteries that hybrids use has gone up by 400%? If you've got a source for that, I'd love to see it. The cost of NICKEL may rise, but the cost of batteries? Source? 

    3. I've gone through a dozen studies on the costs of hybridizing a vehicle. Here's one from EPRI and the Big 3 and some major researchers, who started doing this kind of thing years ago, breaking down all the component parts, looking at mark-up, checking out what scale costs would be, that sort of thing. The appendices in particular have lots on the individual components and the costs. They said it would work out to $2,000-$3,500 --- pretty much bang on.

    To compare properly, I repeat, compare a model which has like-to-like hybrid versus conventional, same package of options, and try to get a nationwide price. It's not even half of that $6,000-$8,000. I think it's important to work out what is automaker sales strategy (pitching high-end families?), or the effect of early stages of market entry (demand > supply in the early years), and what is hardware cost, that will actually linger.

    4. As for the Volt, we want to compare HYBRIDS, right, the ones with 1.6 kwh batteries, NOT 16 kwh batteries - those are "plug-in hybrids," and the math is different because the battery cost outweighs everything else. I'm happy to argue plug-ins and why their economics will be just fine, but first let's try hybrids. Oh yeah, Toyota says they want their plug-in hybrid to have NO price premium over their hybrid. The way battery prices are plummetting (yeah, plummetting - waaay ahead of predictions), they should be fine.

    5. Hybrids. Yeah sure, I guess a cow and a coal cart count as hybrids then as well. But the modern hybridization of vehicles is made possible - and useful - by advanced electronics. Which wasn't, oddly, in existence in 1897 or 1960. It's the electronics which allows a smooth shifting back and forth, during driving. And it's that which allows the battery's energy to be tapped when the ICE would be at its least efficient. Thus, it's the modern electronics which allows all the efficiency savings. Simply having more than one energy source on-board is not actually the key to the modern hybrid and its gains - its the ability to shift smoothly back and forth, drawing on each when it can make the most useful contribution.

    So, um, yes, that is actually a new idea. And no, cheap West Texas oil wouldn't really have mattered a whit. The key to the electrification of the vehicle turned out to be the growth of... consumer electronics. All those gadgets gave us the chips, the software and the low-cost small/light batteries we needed.

    6. On household energy use, you took the chart from this press release, and posted it up on its own, and announced, "BTW, we have more efficient home heating, but the energy we saved now goes to more cooling, heating water and running gizmos."

    Which is not so much the actual case, is it? Because the press release says, right upfront, "dramatic reduction in the energy needed to heat homes, along with other efficiency improvements, led to a 31 percent reduction in energy use per household. As a result, total residential energy consumption remained virtually the same. In 1978, there were 76.6 million occupied housing units in the United States, which used a total of 6.96 quads for space heating. Although the number of homes increased 45 percent to 111.1 million by 2005, they used significantly less energy for heating — just 4.30 quads."

    So, the press release mentions a 31% reduction per household. Plus a growth of 45% in the number of households. But that didn't fit your storyline. Might have been more accurate though, if you had said, "Wow. We did great on efficiency, because we had some astonishing innovations. Like fridges that use 80% less energy, lighting that uses a fraction of what it used to, plus amazing home heating improvements. Sure, we ate up a small fraction of these savings by adding air conditioning and some gizmos, but even with a 45% increase in population growth and new household formation, we basically use no more energy today in our homes than we did in 1978. Who would've guessed that our innovation would have done that well?"

    7. What didn't impress me about Tainter is his easy way with the facts. Sorry if that sounds impolite, but seems to me that's a bigger failing than bluntly pointing out the horseshit.

    China controls something like 97% of rare earth production, which has been such a source of concern that hybrid mfrs have invested R&D into other solutions, announced but not delivered, and countries have invested in formerly unprofitable mines. Kaching. I forget where I saw it, but smaller and lighter batteries cost more than the heavier ones in first gen Prius. 

    At this dealer, Priuses list from $23K to $33K. Camrys list from $17K to $26K. Looks like a difference of $6K to $7K to me.

    The Volt is a serial hybrid, like diesel-electric trains. Most hybrids are parallel, and require much more complicated electronics to work. That's progress, and it keeps customers at the pumps.

    EIA supports what I said.

    1. Rare earths. Certainly not something that looks like it'll cause the death of innovation or amount to a massive environmental limit.

    2. I'll say it again. To compare the price of a hybrid, it's not useful to compare a moel that is ONLY available in hybrid form like the Prius to another model entirely, like the Camry. More useful to compare Ford Escape hybrid and non, Civic hybrid and non, etc. - which is what most studies do. And while it's nice to know what your dealer lists at, since we're talking about the future of the human race and the declining long-term trend toward innovation, it's probably better to understand the real economic cost differences between the technologies.

    And once that's grasped, the fact that a few thousand bucks can cut our gasoline imports by a massive %, slash CO2 emissions, smog emissions, all those things... well, you know. I thought maybe we could get excited about it, and help formulate policy and push for change. But I guess it's better to just repeat shit put out years ago by the antio-hybrid carmakers, and say they're more expensive, lose money, etc.

    3. The Volt. The Volt is a plug-in hybrid. Whether it's serial or parallel architecture actually means almost nothing in real-world terms. What's important is that dozens of plug-in models are coming, they'll cut gas use by 60%-80%, their electronics will work, people will actually buy so little gas it'll go stale in the tank, and we can all get off this fossil fuel train. Except you don't want to hear that. So, whatever.

    4. The EIA said the important stuff - usage down 31% per house, and housing/population up 45%. What you said was just... you. If you think that household gadget use, hot water use and AC was responsible for reversing all the reductions, and that 45% household growth was irrelevant, I'll leave you to it. 

    I was just trying to make sure people didn't get sucked down into this video's sea of unfounded hopelessness, but hey... carry on.

    Camry Hybrid $22,144 $1,623/yr vs Camry $17,448 $2,062/yr 

     $4,696/$429 =10.94 years

    Escape Hybrid 4WD $37,875 $1,847/yr  vs Escape 4WD $28,465 $2,437/yr 

    $9,410/$590 =15.9 years

    I compared all these years ago. If they actually paid off, I'd have bought one. The only hybrid that even came close was the Prius, but everyone I know that owned one said they didn't handle well in the snow. Instead I bought a used car with decent mileage (19/29) and drive it as little as possible. 

    I think the serial hybrid, and the plug-in, will ultimately be a better, simpler solution than the parallels, but even with the Fed credit, it is too expensive right now. If I had money to play with, I'd buy a Twike.

    Donal. Imagine a new building material called... Wood. That enabled you to build more cheaply than using the old material known as... Marble. But imagine developers decided to PRICE Wood at Marble +20%. imagine they also then made their Wooden houses more luxurious. Would you feel this proved that Wood, as a material, was less economic than Marble? This is what I'm saying about hybrids. Their real economic cost is far less than the retail premium being placed on them. Similarly, but less widely known, many automakers are using a large % of the benefit being offered to amp up acceleration, not efficiency. A good hybridization should boost your fuel economy by more like 50% than 15%. I am sad when I see particular automakers do this. But the innovation itself - which is what Tainter is on about - stands. And sooner or later, an automaker with an open mind will meet a population presses by high gas prices, and we'll see the full gains. In fact, we're seeing some of that already in North America, as hybridization spreads across models, and big premiums become impossible. Same with plug-ins. GM could sell all its Volts for the next 3 years at $40k. But they'd lose the mass market. Sooo.... Their engineers have been told to make Gen 2 a full $10k cheaper. Just as Toyota has told its engineers to make the Plug-In Prius the SAME price as the Prius by 2015. So, forgetting the market dynamics of the moment... I'm simply arguing that this is a very big innovation. Bigger than anything to happen to the automobile since it got hooked on cheap West Texas crude.

    Unfortunately I can't get cars wholesale, so the price is the price is the price.

    Once you factor in potential resale price (i.e., Kelley Blue Book), my '05 Civic Hybrid paid off quite some time back. And, it keeps on paying off.

    I haven't watched the videos, but read the comments.  I wanted to say that Dylan Ratigan is almost all about energy any more, and is traveling all over the country to learn what works, what doesn't.  Been a bear on recreating the manufacturing sector with green technology.  I ignore him on nuclear and have sincere doubts about B. Pickens and natural gas given the industry's penchant for fracking so far, but...

    He often quotes that we lose 60-some per cent of all energy created to inefficiency. Googled to find something written; found this at Huffpo.


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