Skip to comments.FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Sacred and the Profane
Posted on 03/14/2009 7:43:42 AM PDT by Publius
Dagny is awash in the afterglow of a fine night in bed with Hank. Hank, however, is contemptuous of Dagny and of himself for what he has done. But he must have her, even if it means giving up everything. Dagny laughs at him, not with anger but with delight. She wants him just as badly, and her proudest attainment is that she has slept with Hank Rearden and has earned the right. Once more they go to the mattress.
Jim Taggart has sat through a triumphal meeting with his Board of Directors while Taggart stock has skyrocketed. Yet through the fine speeches, he perceives the Boards contempt for him and for themselves. Walking through the rain and realizing he has lost his handkerchief, Jim enters a dying five-and-ten to buy tissues and meets a salesgirl who recognizes him.
Cherryl Brooks is under the impression that it is Jim Taggarts courage, tenacity and hard work that have produced the success in Colorado. Cherryl is the victim of hero worship, views Jim as a Great Man, and is thrilled when he asks her to accompany him to his apartment for a drink. What strikes Jim as that she is genuine.
Cherryl had left her family in Buffalo because they were losers who blamed their station in life on bad luck, rather than seeing that they themselves were responsible. She wanted to make something of herself, and so she came to New York.
At the apartment over drinks, Jim is furious with Hank Rearden for making Rearden Metal a success. Rearden didnt deserve it and did it for his own personal profit. Cherryl has no problem with that and thinks that Jim should glory in his, Reardens and Dagnys success. She thinks especially highly of Dagny. That sets Jim off. Dagny enjoys her work, therefore there is nothing to admire. Why serve industrialists in Colorado when there are blighted areas that need transportation? Jim doesnt enjoy it, and he thinks that with all the suffering on earth, why should anybody spend ten years to create a new metal? Somebody needs to see beyond his own wallet.
But Jim lightens up when he remembers Orren Boyles reaction to the success of the line. Boyle turned green and holed up in a disreputable hotel with crates of booze and half the hookers in New York. Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute was not pleased but turned the issue around by demanding that Rearden give something back to the country. Bertram Scudder, who could never shut his mouth, refused comment. Simon Pritchett spread a story that Rearden stole the formula for the metal from a penniless inventor whom he then murdered.
Dagny is coming back to New York tomorrow, and Jim gives his opinion of his sister to Cherryl, who cant believe that Jim could hate Dagny so much. Jim believes that nobody is any good and that man should spend his life on his knees begging to be forgiven for his very existence. Cherryl doesnt understand, so Jim quotes from a book by Simon Pritchett that denies the existence of absolute standards and questions the very nature of reality. Jim believes that unhappiness is the true mark of virtue. But what Cherryl chooses to hear is ambition, and she looks up to Jim. He considers bedding her, but realizing that he has no desire for her tonight, he takes her home. Cherryl is pleased that he didnt try to seduce her, and Jim is insufferably pleased with his own nobility.
At Dagnys apartment, Hank drops in to compliment her on her work on the John Galt Line. Rearden is inundated with orders for his metal. Dagnys strength has opened the way for new wealth and a new future. Hank lists the praises of Dagny from the press, then takes her brutally. But afterward Hank asks about her sexual history. She mentions one other partner she had in her teens where the relationship lasted some years. But she wont mention Franciscos name. Hank demands an answer and gets only a smile, which prompts him to take her again. Brutally.
Mr. Mowen of Connecticut watches a worker loading railcars at the Quinn Ball Bearing Plant. He engages the worker in conversation about people going to Colorado when other Eastern states are suffering. He wonders what is happening to loyalty. Its because of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, says the worker, and that is why Quinn is moving to Colorado. Mowen condemns Colorado for providing very little government, just enough to enforce the law. Colorado is taking away everyones business. Rearden has ruined Orren Boyle; Mowen cant get steel from him. He cant get Rearden Metal because the backlog is too long. It isnt fair that people cant compete with Ellis Wyatt; there should be a limit placed on his output. And New York is running out of oil. But Wesley Mouch of the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources will fix things! The worker turns out to be Owen Kellogg!
The John Galt Line has been turned over to Taggart Transcontinental as per turnkey contract, and Dagnys headquarters building has been demolished. Hank drops in at Dagnys apartment in his tuxedo. He has left a banquet to which Dagny was invited, but chose not to attend so as not to be seen in public with Hank. The banquet has been a bust for Hank, in that there appeared to be no reason for it, and the motives of the people there had been opaque. The theme of the banquet had been that everybody needed Hank, as though they were making a potential claim on him.
Dagny makes great plans for laying Rearden Metal track across the entire Taggart system. Hank plans to open mills outside Pennsylvania, believing that the Equalization of Opportunity Bill will collapse of its own weight. Hank and Dagny decide to take a road trip together as a vacation.
This trip is set on Americas decaying network of two-lane highways. There are no billboards, few houses and fewer cars in rural America. Weeds grow between the cracks in the concrete. What Dagny misses most is the sign of fresh paint.
Ted Nielsen of Colorado intends to build diesel locomotives but cant find the necessary machine tools. Thinking of a closed factory in Wisconsin where Nielsen could scrounge machine parts, Dagny suggests a trip there. Much of the road to Starnesville has actually been dismantled and perhaps sold elsewhere. The town itself appears to have been dismantled except for the few inhabited dwellings scattered about at random. The school is a ruin. Above the town on a hill stands the plant of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, abandoned ten years earlier.
Dagny and Hank ask for directions from a swollen and shapeless woman who lives in a house with a useless gas stove and cooks over a stone fireplace. Her light comes from candles, and her children look like savages. She is not sure where the factory is or how far it is to the next town.
A man draws water from a squeaky pump at a communal well. Rearden asks him for directions and pays him ten dollars, but the man refuses the money, stating that it is worthless. The people of Starnesville use barter among themselves and dont trade with other towns. The man cant give them decent directions. Some children shatter Reardens windshield with a rock while neither the man nor the woman seem to care.
The Twentieth Century Motor Companys plant is a ruin. Dagnys exploration screeches to a halt when she uncovers the wreck of a motor and a paper description of its purpose. It is like no motor she has ever seen, except in college, where it was said that such a thing was impossible. It is a motor that runs off static electricity. Hank and Dagny realize that no one but the designer could make it work, and Dagny suspects the designer is dead, else why would he abandon it? They decide to send a crew to retrieve the motor and anything else that might be salvaged from the plant.
Their last image of Starnesville is a town lit by tallow candles.
Cherryl Brooks and Barbara Stanwyck
The documentary film Forbidden Hollywood covers movies made in the Thirties before Will Hays and the Production Code censored American films for 34 years. One pre-Code classic was 1933's Baby Face, with Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers. Lily is the daughter of a speakeasy owner in Erie, Pennsylvania, who has pimped her out since she was 14. One night, Daddys still blows up, killing him, and Lily goes to New York with her black girlfriend to make her fortune.
She gets a job by bedding the personnel chief at Gotham Trust and sleeps her way to the top. One man she beds and abandons early on is a bank clerk played by the young, unknown John Wayne. At each seduction and abandonment, the camera plays on the bank building, going up floor by floor. The film is done in a breathless Mothers, dont let your daughters do this! style. Todays audiences laugh and root for Lily.
Although there was no mandatory code yet for the motion picture industry, the film ran afoul of the New York State Censorship Board which objected to some sexually suggestive scenes but really bridled at Lilys reading Nietzsche! The producers cut some footage, added some footage and tacked on a moralistic ending. The uncensored version turned up in a vault in 2004 and has been named one of the best 100 movies of the past 80 years.
In the ethos of the Thirties, it would have been the perfect comeuppance for Jim Taggart to be taken down by a little guttersnipe from Erie. But Rand avoids the cliches of the era and reaches for deeper meaning. Cherryl Brooks is not Lily Powers; in fact, she is the anti-Lily.
Cherryl recognizes that she comes from dirt. She doesnt intend to stay in the gutter, however, but comes to New York from Buffalo with that great Gershwin spirit, seeing New York as the City of Possibilities. She intends to make it on her own and has no intention of bedding Jim Taggart for competitive advantage. She has a moral code and sticks to it. The fact that she is genuine jars Taggart, who is full of self-loathing, but for all the wrong reasons.
Because of this, what happens to Cherryl later is doubly tragic.
The Fifties and Dagnys Sexual History
There is a tendency among younger people and the Devoutly Religious to believe that biblical sexual morality was the norm in American society until the Baby Boomers sent everything to hell in a handbasket in the Sixties. In the words of Sportin Life from Porgy and Bess, It aint necessarily so.
While a study of American sexual mores from the Founding onward would be fun, for our purposes the story begins after World War I. The bloodletting of the war prompted a general loosening of sexual morality in Europe and America in the Twenties. The American experience might have been less extreme, but the mistake of Prohibition undermined American respect for law and morality. The automobile took on the function of a traveling bedroom for American teenagers. American girls bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, went drinking at blind pigs, as speakeasies were known, and lost their virginity.
This was a far cry from what had immediately preceded it. In that pre-war era, courting couples sat in the parlor of the girls parents while Ma and Pa turned in for the night. The couples sparked and spooned, and when they got too close to intercourse, a marriage was quickly arranged before things went too far.
There was of course a reaction to the change in morals in the Twenties. In East Texas, the Ku Klux Klan patrolled the parking spots where teenagers were known to congregate. Catching a couple in the act, Klansmen would pull the kids out of the car, tie them to a tree and horsewhip them. This was known as preserving family values.
All this came to a halt with the Depression. With people interested in just staying alive, extramarital sex became something that criminals, communists and college students did to protest bourgeois morality. With World War II, things loosened up and girls engaged to military men understood that they might not see them alive again. There was some promiscuity among women who worked in the factories and whose husbands were at war, but the role models promulgated by the popular magazines and movies of the period kept things from getting out of hand.
Put yourself in the position of a returning war veteran. Youve lived through a tumultuous period of war, depression and social change. Coming home from the war, you want a job, a house where you and your wife can live away from the parents of either, a car and 2.3 children. You crave stability. That is what the Fifties were about, and it was an anomaly, a breathing space between periods of change. It was when chastity became trendy again.
Today, Hanks demanding that Dagny list her prior bed partners would be considered impolite. A couple will explore each others sexual history, but not in a peremptory manner. It is recognized today that a womans body belongs to herself, and its nobodys business whom she has slept with. But Atlas Shrugged is set in the Fifties and standards were different. For a 35 year old woman like Dagny to still be a virgin would be something of a longshot, but a man courting her would have a reasonable expectation that she was not all that experienced. And he would believe that he had a right to know.
Dagnys resistence to Hanks probing is not based on the belief that her body is her own, but is connected to the mores of the time. Dagny wont tell because her relationship with Francisco was special, and she knows how Hank loathes him. Her silence is different from that of a modern woman.
Mr. Mowen, Unions and the Third World
Things arent right ... The Equalization of Opportunity Bill was a sound idea. Theres got to be a chance for everybody. Its a rotten shame if people like Quinn take unfair advantage of it. Why didnt he let somebody else start manufacturing ball bearings in Colorado? ... I wish the Colorado people would leave us alone. That Stockton Foundry out there had no right going into the switch and signal business. Thats been my business for years, I have the right of seniority, it isnt fair, its dog-eat-dog competition, newcomers shouldnt be allowed to muscle in.
In the Sixties and Seventies, those words didnt come from business owners like Mr. Mowen. They came from the mouths of union bosses.
One of Americas dirty little secrets is that organized labor was responsible in the Fifties for creating the American middle class as we know it, and it did so by insisting that unskilled labor be paid the same wages as skilled labor. Following the war, America had the only industrial plant in the world that hadnt been destroyed by bombardment. American unions could demand higher wages, and the rest of the world had no choice but to pay inflated prices for American goods because we were the only game in town. An American male could drop out of school, get his union card, sign up at the local plant, marry, have 2.3 children, own a car, house and vacation home, and at age 65 retire with a full pension and go fishing. It was a great racket while it lasted.
In the Sixties, the Third World came on line as a source of cheap labor; in the Seventies, Nixons decision to close the gold window turned the dollar into a pure fiat currency represented by bits and bytes of computer data that flowed around the world effortlessly. The result was that high labor costs caused American goods to be priced out of world markets. Faced with such a challenge, a capitalistic concern could either go out of business or shift its manufacturing to the Third World. As a nation begins to industrialize, it does its time on the sweatshop cross, and that made it mandatory for American companies to shift work abroad. Unions were outraged, but were not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to keep jobs at home. After all, if a union lacks pricing power, what good is it?
With the end of the Cold War, the Second World came on line as a cheap labor source, effectively ending the pricing power of American wage earners.
In the book, there is no Third World because everyone outside America has accepted communism. But there is Colorado, with its minimalist libertarian government, and capitalists move there because business conditions demand it. Mr. Mowen would be best advised to shut up, discard his sense of entitlement and join Mr. Quinn in Colorado.
Starnesville, Rome, Mad Max and the Collapse of Trade
In the year 476, the Roman army deposed the last emperor. The Roman bureaucracy soldiered on, pretending that nothing had changed, until it gave up the ghost and taxes were no longer collected. On the frontier, Roman legions, now unpaid, deserted, either going home or marrying into the families of the area in which they were stationed.
A little fable is in order.
Before the empire collapsed, in a frontier settlement a Roman judge handed down a verdict injurious to a barbarian clan chief. The clan chiefs son then murdered the Roman judge. The next day, the local Roman legion assaulted the clan chiefs compound, crucified the men and sold the women and children into slavery. Roman law and power were upheld, and everybody knew who was boss.
After the collapse and with the disappearance of the legions, the same events occurred, but the day after the murder of the Roman judge, the clan chief and his family swaggered around town collecting tribute from the inhabitants. There was a new boss, and everybody knew who it was.
With the disappearance of the legions, bandits took over the fine Roman roads and trade ground to a halt. In the Dark Ages, a man who had enough wealth to hire former legionnaires as thugs on horseback later to be known as knights when the Church got its hands on them could build a fortified castle and control a sector of land, preserving his version of law and order. Walled towns, castles and manors were designed to be self-sufficient because trade was a high risk effort. People over time sold their freedom to the man with thugs on horseback because he could protect them from outsiders. Thus serfdom entered the world, and people were bound to the land, never traveling more than a few miles from the place where they were born.
Australian director George Miller put some thought into just how a society unravels in his three-part Mad Max saga, with Mel Gibson in the starring role.
In the first film from 1980, Mad Max, Gibson plays a highway patrolman in Australia following a nuclear war. One job is to enforce a low speed limit because oil is scarce, but his main concern is that Australias prisons have disgorged their inmates into the outback during the confusion. Civilized life is possible along a narrow strip of coastline, but in the outback, gangs rule. People will kill for a tanker truck full of gas. The veneer of civilization is wearing thin.
In the second film from 1982, Mad Max 2", released as The Road Warrior in the US, Max has to protect an oil refinery in the outback from resident gangs. The film is similar to American westerns, but with gang members in motor vehicles replacing Indians on horseback. Life on the coastal strip is vanishing.
In the third film from 1985, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, civilization exists in small settlements where people can wall themselves off from barbarians. There is no longer any oil, and animal power hauls the hulks of cars and trucks. Pig manure produces the methane needed to satisfy the energy needs of a walled settlement.
The Mad Max saga chronicles the transition to the Dark Ages in Australia.
Rands vision is only a little different. Starnesville, Wisconsin is a vision of hell. The town isnt much more than a ghost town, with no job base, no school, no gas, no electricity and no running water. Federal Reserve Notes are useless, and people use barter within the town. Nobody trades with other towns, and people arent even sure how far away the next town is. All we are missing is the local clan chief with his thugs on horseback declaring that Starnesville is his fief. Its the Dark Ages descending on America. Here Rand gives the reader a foretaste of what is to come when this degradation of society spreads to the cities.
Some Discussion Topics
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Our First Freeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Theme
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Chain
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Top and the Bottom
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Immovable Movers
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Climax of the dAnconias
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Non-Commercial
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Exploiters and the Exploited
FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The John Galt Line
Too bad this led off with one of Ayn Rand’s oddly mechanical and emotionally flat sexcapades. I’ve always found them disturbing, not due to any sense of prudishness, but due to the sheer unreality of them.
No wonder her personal life was such a wreck. These scenes are as close to autobiographical interpersonal reactions as she gets, imho.
Her experience under the Soviet boot left her emotionally hyper-distant and analytical to a peculiar degree. Thank goodness for this, as far as her incomparable deconstruction, destruction really, of collectivism, of the nanny state mentality, though.
That makes her a keeper.
It would help me if I knew which chapters were covered in your installments.
Francisco's response to "Money is the root of all evil" was brilliant. Pubbies could learn a little from Rand's defense of markets.
Franks is straight out of Rand central casting, isn’t he? The very picture of a putty-butted, weakling secondhander with borrowed power to wield.
A precious, very memorable few actually did.
Suggested title: "Bundling boards to Barney Frank".
And I just posted a bunch of responses to the last chapter's thread. :-(
Chapter 9 is upon us, wherein the breathless pace of the preceding two abates a little, allowing the reader to catch his or her breath for a bit. Not that theres any shortage of developments. Theyre subtle ones, omens rather than prophecies, hints rather than statements. For all the criticism directed at Rand for stiffness of dramatic construction this chapter demonstrates that she can put a story together without having her characters march out front and make declamations.
We start with Hank being suddenly prey to a fit of post-coital depression and self-loathing, and Dagny rightly laughing at him for it. Here Rand presents a question that might have bothered 50s-era readers more than it does their somewhat jaded successors should Hank feel badly? Are the immovable movers exempt from conventional morality due to sheer personal excellence, or only from the corrupt bits of it? Nietszche, from whom Rand got the dilemma in the first place, would have answered all of it. How she answers the question remains to be seen.
But clearly Hank is disgusted at himself for having compromised his wedding vows. It is the first hint that Hank is slowly, relentlessly, being sucked out of his ethical premises on not only matters of marital propriety but on a far broader front as well. For now it is Dagny who is helping him. Who will help her when her turn comes?
It is apparent that not only industry giants are susceptible to this sort of existential crisis. We see a good deal of it in a young lady named Cherryl Brooks, a working-class girl who meets James Taggart by chance and divulges that she admires him greatly. The difficulty is that everything that she admires about him is, in fact, glory stolen from his sister Dagny. We can already anticipate that sooner or later shes going to learn better and therell be trouble when she does.
The Publius Body Count may have to be decremented momentarily. Mr. Mowen of Amalgamated Switch has a brief conversation with a young transient laborer, against which sounding board he bewails the fact that industry seems to be departing his native Connecticut for the fresh fields of Colorado, motivated in part by the fact that nobody who owns a company in one place can own another in another, courtesy of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill. And so the good ones move and what is left are the dessicated husks left by the looters.
Why are they all running to Colorado? he asked. What have they got down there that we havent got?
The young man grinned. Maybe its something youve got that they havent got.
What? The young man did not answer. I dont see it They dont even have a modern government. Its the worst government it does nothing outside of keeping law courts and a police department. It doesnt do anything for the people
The young man, subsisting hand to mouth on transient labor, turns out to be none other than Dagnys old and trusted employee Owen Kellogg who simply up and disappeared one day.
Listen, Kellogg. What do you think is going to happen to the world?
You wouldnt care to know.
Well, we would, but thats going to take awhile. Meanwhile we discover that Wesley Mouch has vaulted into national prominence in the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources. A man to watch, to be sure.
And at last Dagny dons The Bracelet. This is no longer subtle symbology, the characters know perfectly well what it signifies and say so, Dagny with a somewhat arch aside that shed have slept with Rearden in order to consummate a necessary business deal if hed demanded it. As long as it was he. This isnt prostitution any more than their real intercourse was rape, but it is a prostitution fantasy (just as Reardens was a rape fantasy) that she finds amusing, yet another insight into her vigorous sexuality. How serious it really is, however, is highly questionable we remember that she denied both herself and Francisco the re-ignition of their affair under much less trying circumstances. Dagny is no slut, and Hank no rapist, which may be why they can indulge themselves in the fantasies. The sexual fun is in the psychological tension that does not exist when either becomes a reality.
They do, however, trundle off on a working vacation as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an artifice which appears to fool no one. They find themselves in the post-apocalyptic future which is our first glance at what is likely to happen after Atlas shrugs. It is worth dwelling on for a moment. After a tragicomic interval attempting to extract directions out of some country folk I dont know what their problem was, the directions seemed perfectly clear to me they find at last the place they are seeking, a derelict factory that once was an automotive industry leader. Here, digging through the rubble, Dagny comes across what is on several different levels the engine of the future, abandoned, incomplete, and incapable of being recreated in the absence of its inventor. It is a motor that can quite literally call energy down from the heavens, change all of transportation and industry, transform the world, and yet it is relegated to junk. Why?
Hank, that motor was more valuable than the whole factory and everything it ever contained. Yet it was passed up and left in the refuse. It was the one thing nobody found worth the trouble of taking.
Thats what frightens me about this, he answered.
What could have happened at the factory for a thing of such incredible value to be abandoned, for its inventor to disappear in what is becoming a rather uncomfortable pattern by now? The fellow must be found. The future of the country depends on it.
Two side notes first, in this chapter we at last learn Dagnys true age thirty-five. And we learn that the mysterious figure outside her office when she was working late to create the John Galt Line was not, as we previously assumed, Rearden. Who then?
And just in case we didnt get the point from les misérables with the diapers on the clothesline, Rand ends the chapter with the vision of a post-industrial future:
She looked down at the motor. She looked out at the country. She moaned suddenly and dropped her head on her arm
Whats the matter? he asked.
She did not answer.
He looked out. Far below, in the valley, in the gathering night, there trembled a few pale smears which were the lights of tallow candles.
One understands her horror. It is a hardscrabble existence for its unlucky inhabitants. No power, no food, no hope. But it is, as we seem to get laudatory lectures about on a daily basis these days from our eco-zealot friends, a sustainable lifestyle. So was the Neanderthals. It didnt help.
What we have here happened in the short space of 12 years since the areas economic bubble popped. Is this believable? Absolutely, as a visit to any of the American Wests numerous ghost towns will attest. Or take a look at the Siberian city of Kadykchan, less than 20 years after the Soviet Union fell and there was no longer a sufficient reason to be there. 12,000 people used to live in that place. I picture the ruins of Rands Twentieth Century Motor Company looking something like this. This is what happens when Atlas shrugs.
Life in the ruins. It isnt exactly like the purely imaginary life of Rousseaus Noble Savage, this one has a bittersweet element, a remembrance of things that were and for most of the inhabitants of Starnesville, a clear misunderstanding of why they are no longer. Will they learn enough to avoid repeating history? Will we?
Have a great week, Publius!
If you want to search for all threads, run a keyword search on "freeperbookclub".
Once upon a time, people who went into government service did so after an illustrious career in the private sector. It was a way to cap a great career.
Today people go into government service first and then use that service as a springboard into the private sector. Often they end up working for companies they should have been investigating when they were working for the government. This is why there is so much endemic corruption in Wall Street and the financial industry. The players bought the government years ago, and party affiliation has nothing to do with it.
I was just thinking the same thing after I read that line.
I hate that term brutally. I didn't think any of their "bedroom scenes" were "brutal". I saw it as "passion unleashed".
If I had to fancy an insight on Rand's sexual philosophy, I would probably say that she might have been a tad repressed and would have had loved to have a passionate relationship with a man.
So Dagny finds the wreck of a motor, and she knows instantly that the motor had a designer. A tree, an ant, &c., are incredibly more complex but these supposedly had no designer; and people who believe they did apparently cannot view things "objectively."
(And PS, to the guy who mentioned that all the "good" companies are named after people and all the "bad" ones have names like Amalgamated Something or other. What about Twentieth Century Motors? It may have become "bad" but it was "good" at one time.)
OK. I'll try "wildly" and "passionately" and check my thesaurus for other useful words.
It's a story for our time.
Summary is up to the fine standards that you usually set.
I had fun this week with all the explanatory essays. But wait until next week!
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