That’s Not What “Smart” Means


At 1585, we like smart.  We acknowledge that some people are smarter than others, we make no secret of the fact that we include ourselves in the smarter group, and we blame stuff we don’t like on people we don’t hesitate to call stupid.  We’re glad to see that there seems to be more of a hunger now for smart in this country than there was a few years ago, and we’re anxious to see where it takes us.  We think more people need to realize that it’s good to be smart, we think it needs to become cool to be smart, and we think that people who are smart should refuse to take any crap for it. 

But amid all this smart-flag-waving, we all need to stop every once in a while and remind ourselves that not everything that calls itself smart, is smart.  Just because an author says that being smart is good over and over, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on our side.  Consider this piece, from last month’s National Review Online, the web counterpart to the infamous conservative journal:

“Talking to the Plumber:  The I.Q. Gap” by John Derbyshire 

After the last eight years, after the gains that the right has made by deliberately fostering a culture of anti-intellectual mob hysteria, seeing a right-wing pundit turn around and praise smartness — praise it as a quality inherent to and reverently guarded by the string-pullers of the conservative establishment — is beyond perverse.  It is like seeing Eichmann in a yarmulke. 

He’s right that “smartness is good,” of course, but you have to keep an eye out for how he’s defining it — kind of like how the word freedom works in one of those conservative action movies.  The Spartans of 300, for example, seemed to think it meant a fascist oligarchy with a 90% slave population.  They were technically right when they said “freedom is good,” but their definition of the term was somewhat off.

Similarly, John Derbyshire’s attempt at defining smart, as you’ve just seen, boils down to Contrary to what you might think, the GOP is actually the party of the smart, because we’re the party of the rich and — whaddaya know? — it turns out “smart people” just means “rich people.”

Self-refutingly ridiculous?  One would hope.  But the sooner we inoculate ourselves and others against this strain of rhetoric, the better, because I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.  You see, what’s happened is, the right-wing business dickheads have seen which way the wind is blowing, and they’re starting to distance themselves from the religious lunatics (they will, of course, run back into the arms of the religious lunatics at such time as it once again becomes politically expedient to do so, but for now it’s not).  They sense that there’s a Smart Bandwagon getting underway, and they’re trying to hop aboard early enough to grab the reins.

Needless to say, they must be kept da fuck back from said reins. 

And so, here follows my response to “Talking to the Plumber: The I.Q. Gap” (dig that title, by the way… so this is what Republican journals are churning out while Republican politicians are painting Liberals as elitists who oppress the common folks with our radical values — essays where the author announces in the fucking title that he thinks all plumbers are stupid).

The piece opens with the tried-and-true conservative tactic of wearily lamenting how newfangled and scary everything has become, what you can’t say anymore, etc.  I like to call it the Galadriel Voice-Over Technique (“The wuhld is chaaanged…  I feeeel it in the ayyyuh…”).  Though the two excised hymn verses Derbyshire analyzes are more than a little thematically different, he sets them up as two sides of the same coin:  isn’t it crazy that the youngsters nowadays have all these video whatchamacallits and we have to drive them everywhere* — you know, just like how it’s crazy that we’re not supposed to think God loves rich people more than he loves poor people anymore? 

    *(By the way, Conservatives:  Do you know why it is that back in the day your kids used to simply walk outside and play but now you have to drive them to supervised activities?  Because you moved to the suburbs, because you were terrified of Negroes.)

He’s quick to unburden himself of the literal divine-ordinance explanation for poverty, of course, but what he replaces it with is… well, bafflingly un-literal.  It very likely is the case that some people have higher net worth than others, though it’s a bit indelicate to talk about it,” is his phrase.  Net worth there is, it would seem, to be taken to mean genetic net worth — i.e., intelligence — but the in-and-of-itself harmless metaphor seems a dodgy move in a piece that aims to draw a direct correlation between inborn ability and material wealth.  So, net worth there is functioning as a metaphor for… itself?  (And what would someone’s genetic gross consist of?  His intelligence before it’s adjusted for the amount of time he had to spend studying?)

So, to keep anyone from noticing how dodgy this is, Derbyshire quickly employs some equally dodgy straw-man sarcasm — “Still less can anyone, believer or unbeliever, think that Mother Nature had anything to do with it. Good grief, no!” — thus shifting the focus to whether we are “allowed” to talk about something before he has even adequately defined what the thing is.

Now, as teach-the-controversy strategists well know, conversations about whether you’re “allowed” to talk about something conveniently shift attention away from whether or not the thing is even true — i.e., whether anyone should bother talking about it, regardless of whether they’re “allowed” to.  After all, one could justifiably say that it is “considered indelicate” to talk about how the world is flat as well… but one’d better not, since it might well result in a pro-flat-world piece or two turning up in National Review.  To these people, apparently, the fact that you are “not allowed” to talk about something serves as evidence that it’s true.

But what is it again that P.C. sensitivity is preventing us from discussing…?  The idea that some people are smarter than others?  That’s it?  Well, it’s true that we have met a few UREGs who claimed to believe that no two humans are born with different intellectual capacities, but even among UREGs these people are a fringe group.  The vast majority of Americans are just fine with admitting that some individuals are smarter than others — there are some who believe otherwise, but a far smaller number than, say, those who believe that aliens built the pyramids.

But Derbyshire is not talking about individuals.  His goal is to talk about groups, while making it seem like he is talking about individuals.  From the oversimplified breakdown about various groups’ explanations for where other various groups are on the social ladder onward, it’s another hardcore gang-colors piece from the supposed party of individual rights.

As for how accurately he characterizes these groups, I took surprised umbrage at how his little tetrapartite breakdown makes all “Left Unbelievers” out to be the P.C. Police, since I myself am, as you know, a liberal atheist who hates P.C.  This characterization by Derbyshire just makes me think he hasn’t really been around the people he’s talking about all that much.  In my experience, Liberals who identify themselves as atheists are avowedly un-P.C. (think Bill Maher, David Cross, etc. — I would add Camille but I’m not sure whether she’s calling herself a Liberal or a Libertarian this month).  I think what’s going on here is that Derbyshire is using unbeliever to mean not necessarily “self-identified atheist” but merely “not a practicing member of an organized religion.”  Obviously, the former is a subset of the latter, but there tend to be big differences between the ones who use the A-word and the ones who don’t. 

From what I’ve seen, people in the “-isms” crowd tend to identify themselves neither as believers nor as atheists.  Religion is too traditional for them, but avowed atheism is too scientific (and would require openly disagreeing not only with Christianity, but with minority religions as well, which they can’t do), so they usually employ some dodge and say they are “spiritual” or some crap.  Ultimately, whether there really is or really isn’t a God doesn’t concern them, since they come out of the Academic Marxist tradition and are concerned not with objective truth or consistent principles, but with getting people to act how they want them to act, by any method that works.

For accuracy’s sake, Derbyshire really should have broken down that group into “Left Unbelievers A” and “Left Unbelievers B” — but then again, it is in his interest here to paint the entire left as fundamentally unscientific.  Once he serves up the meat of his argument, having opened this way will make objections seem like they are being made on ideological, rather than logical, grounds.

And speaking of the meat of Derbyshire’s argument, here it is, in three sentences:  

    “If you pluck a hundred rich men from their castles and put them in a room together, though, you will notice a high level of general intelligence.  Contrariwise, a hundred poor men taken from their gates will, if put all in one place, convey a general impression of slow dullness.  That’s the meritocracy.”

The first two sentences, of course, are merely an observation (if a deceptively vaguely phrased one).  The claim is the three-word concluding sentence — and that’s the part that’s utter bullshit.

The trap many Liberals might fall into here (as Derbyshire well knows) would be to waste time arguing about whether the observation detailed in the first two sentences is true or not.  This is a problem because it prevents the discussion from ever getting up to the third sentence, which is the most dangerous part.  The way to deal with the first two sentences isn’t to say That’s not true! — It’s to say Of course that’s true, but it doesn’t mean what you’re acting like it means.

Just look how Derbyshire phrases things.  He doesn’t say the rich men are all legitimately gifted; he says that “you will notice” that they seem this way.  Presumably, this is in a cocktail-party situation where the observer is merely chatting with the hundred rich men, not giving them written tests or asking them to solve brain teasers.  The hundred poor men, conversely, “convey a general impression of slow dullness.”  In other words, if you stand back and watch rich people or poor people chit-chat with one another in a social setting, the rich people will talk like rich people and the poor people will talk like poor people.  No shit.  I wonder if it has anything to do with how the rich people were born to rich people and thus grew up learning how to talk like rich people, and the poor people were born to poor people and thus grew up learning how to talk like poor people.

Anyway, there’s no point in disputing this, because it doesn’t mean anything.  What does mean something is the quick “that’s the meritocracy” crack at the end — it’s trying to slip the idea that the rich people were smart first and that’s how they got rich past the reader, real quick-like.  If he explicitly stated this, of course, virtually anyone would be culturally aware enough to stop and say “Hey, that’s not true.”  Most rich people were born more-or-less rich already, and the ones who actually did pull themselves up from nothing using only their inborn mad skillz (rock stars, pro athletes, Bill Gates) tend to be a) politically liberal, and b) the ones who are the least concerned with behaving like castle-dwellers.  Acting rich is only what you have to do if deep down you know you don't deserve to be rich.    

The claim here is that everything is proceeding how it should be:  rich people deserve to be rich, poor people deserve to be poor, and the only “problem with this smartocracy is, we have this itchy feeling that it’s un-American.”  Well, he’s right there, at least.  I do definitely have the feeling that this smartocracy is un-American… because wherever it exists, it sure ain’t in America.

For readers who plan to get into an argument about this with someone and don’t feel like memorizing this whole essay, there are, in short, three main counters to what Derbyshire is trying to set up here.  The first is that most rich people were born rich, or at least rich enough to be in a position to get richer.  The second is that, rather than being fixed at birth, IQ is largely determined by early childhood care (i.e., frequently, wealth determines IQ, not the other way around).  And the third is that a huge number of — possibly most — exceptionally smart people do not especially care about getting rich, at least not enough to prioritize it above everything else.

Ignoring the second point is really the most disingenuous thing Derbyshire does here, considering that, unlike the complicated sociological stuff, it is a simple scientific fact that can be straightforwardly stated in a single sentence — and one of which Derbyshire is almost certainly aware, meaning he omitted it by design.

If IQ is predominantly heritable at all levels of society, as Derbyshire asserts (or, rather, as he hopes to imply, since he knows it would be factually in error to out-and-out say this), then that should mean that if we took at birth 100 random babies born to upper-class parents and 100 random babies born to lower-class parents and then raised them in identical fashions with the same early-childhood care, it should still be the case that the average IQ of the upper-class scion far exceeds the average IQ of their counterparts (NOTE: it wouldn’t).  Actually, just to be sure, we should probably actually kidnap their mothers right when they became pregnant, to correct for the fact that the upper-class moms would probably not smoke or drink while pregnant, and eat exclusively stuff from Whole Foods, whereas the poor moms would be much more likely to smoke, drink, and eat exclusively horrible bullshit bought at the gas station (if this last point sounds cold, remember I am making it in the service of establishing that IQ is not predominantly a genetic matter).  The Heritability Hardcores are fond of citing very high IQ correlations among identical twins raised in different environments but always “forget” to mention that this only holds true in the absence of injurious factors — i.e., heritability will trump environment if the environmental difference is middle class vs. upper-middle class, but not if one of the environments is straight-up poor.  This was conclusively established a couple of years after The Bell Curve came out, yet Derbyshire is still quoting Herrnstein and Murray — yes, that first excerpt he uses is from the The Bell Curve guys — like they are the last word.

So much for point two, which involves a lot of math and is hard to make funny (if you want more on it, go read the thousands of really long IQ-heritability studies readily available on the internet).  On to point three:  the fact that, when you leave the poor out of it and examine society from the middle class upwards, the rich people are frequently the biggest dumbasses.

It is no secret that “A” students do not tend to become rich.  Exceptionally bright kids usually end up becoming concerned with smart stuff for the sake of smart stuff — they become researchers, professors, computer nerds, and a whole host of other occupations that don’t net you a lot of money unless you’re one of the lucky freaks who ends up inventing something.  Conservatives certainly make enough wisecracks about unemployed Philosophy majors that you’d expect them to remember this before penning a whole essay arguing that all smart people get rich. 

But as the joke Derbyshire relates on page two indicates, they get around this objection via the “No True Scotsman” Fallacy — any seemingly smart person who chooses not to get rich must not actually be smart.  That’s when the illusory distinctions get trotted out — the Philosophy major is “book smart” but has no “common sense,” and so forth.

The people who become rich are the “B” and “C” students who have a) good people skills and b) absolutely no better ideas.  Nobody who gives a shit about knowledge for the sake of knowledge majors in fucking business — it’s not even a real major!  And even within the business world, the idea that if you examined the corporate ladder, you would find the smartest people at the top is beyond laughable.  The person in the office building with the highest IQ isn’t the CEO; it’s the IT guy — and probably not by a little, either. 

The smartest students are the ones who grow up to become the teachers, and teachers are famously poor — of course, pointing this out will get us nowhere, since the GOP has nothing to lose by insulting teachers, since teachers are all too smart to vote for them anyway.  So try this instead:  “Hey, Republican pundit, are cops and firefighters rich?  Because cops and firefighters are demigods, so you couldn’t possibly think that they’re all stupid, right?  And what about THE TROOOOOOPS?!  Are THE TROOOOOOPS rich?!  We all know how much you love THE TROOOOOOPS!”

Anyhow, look at it this way:  Is Stephen Hawking — widely cited as the smartest man in the world — rich?  Oh, sure, Professor Hawking is not by any means broke, but does he have as much money as, say, some asshole who runs an oil company?  Or even the guy ten steps down from the guy who runs it?  No.  The kind of intelligence Stephen Hawking has (which neither the biggest conservative cynic nor biggest liberal P.C. acolyte would dispute is, you know, the real kind) destined him to become a theorist and professor, and he is as successful a theorist and professor as one can possibly be.  Most of his income comes from his books, but how much he makes from those rather depends on how many people are interested in reading books about advanced physics, doesn’t it?  In other words, Stephen Hawking’s income is less dependent on how smart he is than on how smart other people are — i.e., he makes way less money than, say, Dane Cook.

I personally have been in rooms full of rich people many, many times.  They are not smart.  The main difference I observed between them and the general population is that a significantly higher percentage of the males do that fucking thing where when you shake hands with them they start squeezing before your hand is all the way lined up with their hand so they’re squeezing just your fingers instead of the main part of your hand and then squeeze really hard so it hurts and hold it like that for a long time while they lean in and grin at you.  If there’s some reason why you have to be especially smart to do that to people, I don’t know what it is.  I guess we could be charitable and say that the ability to constantly look out for and successfully find opportunities to needlessly crush the fingers of strangers is, as the saying goes, “a form of intelligence,” but it has got to be one of the very least impressive forms.

Equally unimpressive is the callow bait-and-switch Derbyshire attempts with the two quick-succession excerpts from other columnists.  The Chris Satullo piece, which Derbyshire quotes from first, is a fine editorial.  It’s about the difficult rhetorical situation in which Obama finds himself, and how ridiculous it is for so many Americans to demand that our leaders act dumb, and Satullo’s thesis — that right-wing charges of elitism are actually about intelligence, not wealth — is self-evidently sound.

What Derbyshire needs readers to swallow here, however, is the Bizarro version of the same point:  that accusations of elitism are really just sour-grapes about smarts, but that these cries are coming from the “class warriors” of the left, rather than the “plain folks” of the right — so he makes like Indy with the bag of sand, and suddenly we’re hearing from some douchebag who’s afraid of his plumber.

Hey, you can call Liberals anti-smart all you want, but we’re not the ones who made this sign:


A guy who’s always been atypically privileged finds it hard to make small talk with a working-class stranger, and Derbyshire bolts straight to the conclusion that this is solely a case of communication difficulty across gaps in IQ?  How fucked up does someone have to be for this to seem even a little sound?!  I’m not saying the guy wasn’t smarter than his plumber — if I had to bet, I guess I would say he probably was — but to seriously argue that intelligence is the primary issue here, and that class is merely an illusion created by intelligence…?

Look for no further proof of the sadness of this delusion than the fact that its adherents call it “Ivy retardation” — as if the Ivies are the only schools where smart people go (or, conversely, as if everyone who goes to them is smart).  As was probably the case at your high school, the kids from my high school who went to Ivies weren’t necessarily the smartest.  They were the ones who were smart enough, but also did some wacky rich-person sport (lacrosse, crew), and felt like going to an Ivy, and could afford it.  Most of the very smartest people were also weird, and felt like going to one of those other schools that’s just as smart but a lot smaller and for weird people.  You know the ones I mean.

I’m not saying I have an easy time talking to the plumber, but I realize that this has nothing to do with anyone’s IQ.  From what I can figure, it’s mainly because I don’t like sports.  I also have a hard time talking to rich people, and this, from what I can figure, is… mainly because I don’t like sports.

Hey, that’s weird.  Why don’t rich people and poor people just talk about sports?

 Plus, since when are plumbers even poor?  They cost a lot, and everyone needs them, so they probably do okay.  I know they make more than teachers and run-of the-mill office types.  How come doing something where you get your hands dirty means you count as “poor,” even if you technically have more money?  And why are Republicans the ones advancing this idea, since they’re supposed to be el partido mas macho?

Anyway, have you been following the progression so far?  We started off talking about how you’re not supposed to talk about how certain groups of people are smarter than other groups of people, which of course, must mean that it’s true.  Then we learned that IQ determines socioeconomic status (at least, according to Herrnstein and Murray, my old pals from when I was growing up in a nasty, bizarre little town — incidentally, the same town where John Derbyshire lives now) rather than socioeconomic status determining IQ (as it does according to every other psychologist, as I learned when I left).   Then, that if you are ever in a situation where you have nothing to say to someone, it means you’re smarter than him.  And it was all leading up to a discussion of…  Scooter Libby?

Bees are on the what now?!

I have never made more than $30,000 in a single year in my life, and I would bet body parts that I am smarter than Scooter Fucking Libby.  The “castle” of which Derbyshire speaks may well be technically a meritocracy, but it is not one in which advancement comes via intelligence — advancement in this castle comes via relaying racist jokes over golf, knowing a guy who can obtain coke on a moment’s notice, and being quick on the draw with the fucking hurty handshake thing.  It’s true, of course, that someone in the castle has to be smart — dastardly though he may be, it takes techne to do what Karl Rove does as well as Karl Rove does it — but it only takes one Rove to sustain an entire fiefdom of Dubyas.  For people in a position to pay, it is every bit as possible to pay people to be smart for you as it is to pay them to do anything else.

How strange that I have often been moved to tears by songs written by people with IQs more than two standard deviations lower than mine.  How perplexing that I so frequently laugh at — and even gain insights from — the acts of comedians with IQs more than two standard deviations lower than mine.  How astonishing that there is such a thing as school, where over the course of their career a teacher will “effectively communicate” with thousands of students with IQs more than two standard deviations lower than their own.

But to be fair, this, I suspect, is not what Derbyshire means.  He means communication absent an artist/audience framework; a one-to-one chat; the proverbial “beer with” someone.  Fine.  Now, since I personally have observed countless flawless social interactions — often involving actual, and not merely proverbial, beer — between people with IQs around 170 and people with IQs around 140 (ditto 190 and 160, or 150 and 120), let’s set aside this Deresiewicz fellow’s “two standard deviations” business and just assume that Derbyshire means communication across whatever constitutes the smart/stupid line:  a conversation between a 120 and a 90, let’s say.

If it is so important to Mr. Derbyshire, I will admit that I find it difficult to talk to stupid people…  At least, to the ones I realize are stupid.  Since, as I said earlier, most social interaction doesn’t involve handing people written tests, it is not always easy to tell who is smart and who isn’t.  When we think about the times we’ve had trouble talking to stupid people, what we aren’t thinking about are the times we didn’t have trouble talking to people we didn’t know were stupid.  It’s like how someone who doesn’t know much about gay guys thinks that all gay guys are flamboyant — there are plenty who aren’t flamboyant, but those are the ones you don’t realize are gay.  It's called the Spotlight Fallacy.    

Remember that one popular girl in high school who was secretly really smart and got straight “A”s?  Her IQ was probably as high as yours (I’m assuming that everyone who reads this website is smart), and possibly higher — yet she spent all her time communicating very effectively with people much dumber than she, whereas conversation between the two of you would have been virtually impossible (even if she consented to talk to you in the first place, I mean).  This is because she learned, or chose, not to act like her IQ was as high as it was, because it was not fashionable within her class.  There is, as everyone knows, a “class structure” in high school too, communication across which is very difficult, but it is not based on wealth to the same extent that Derbyshire’s scenarios are — if you all live in the same school district, then everyone is roughly as rich as everyone else. 

If you met this girl now, of course, conversation would be effortless — you went to the same high school, but now both spend most of your time around people who didn’t, and so could connect more closely with each other in a conversation about that than either of you could with any of the other people you currently know.  Similarly, if “Ivy retarded” Mr. Deresiewicz and his boogeyman plumber were both, say, sent back in time to the mid-19th Century, they would both find it easier to talk to each other than either of them would find it to talk to anyone else on the planet — even people with the exact same IQs.  

To bring myself into the picture, it has been made clear to me again and again over the course of my social lifetime that I have absolutely nothing to say to rooms full of rich people, and I — if you believe what IQ tests have to say about it — am a genius with room to spare.  Of course, I would vastly prefer that you believe what my writing demonstrates about my abilities than what IQ tests do… but, frankly, it’s all good either way.

Not that writing ability is a flawless indicator of intelligence either — it’s just the indicator of being intelligent in the way that I happen to be intelligent.  I know that sounds like a cop-out, and I realized while I was writing this essay that a lot of readers wouldn’t feel right coming out of it if I didn’t at least try to make some all-encompassing stab at what being smart means…  but I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t feel tortuously reductive.  Then, after however many days of work, I broke for a few minutes to clear my head and check my e-mail and saw that, apropos of nothing whatsoever, a friend had sent me a link to this clip.  Friends, check out this good shit.  This is what smart means — not just the ability to figure this out, which I certainly couldn’t have done, but the feeling it gives you: 

Now, would any higher a percentage of rich people than of others be entranced by this?  Not really.  Certainly, some would, but so would some middle-class people, and some poor people — the exact number who are, in any of Derbyshire’s beloved rooms of 100 so-and-sos, would be far more a matter of chance than of anything else.  And remember, I am not talking about people who understand the clip — indeed, there is nothing to understand exactly, since Sagan closes by explicitly distinguighing what we can imagine from what we can think about.  There would only be attraction to The Smart and repulsion from The Smart.  The individuals who are attracted to The Smart might use different expressions to indicate this depending on which room they are in — the ones in the rich room might call the clip “fascinating” while those in the poor room might call it “freaky” or “fucked up” — but this is altogether immaterial.  

Likewise, the individuals who are repulsed by The Smart would express this in different ways. Those in the rich room might put on condescending grins, slap the person who produced the clip on the back, and tell him he was never going to make money with egghead stuff, while their counterparts in the poor room might only call him a faggot and threaten him with violence — but if different rationalizations for repulsion from The Smart are fashionable in different circles, what of that?  It is repulsion from The Smart itself that is the problem.

And it is a problem that, in my moments of the greatest level of optimism I deem it logically justifiable to allow myself, I believe can be solved.  This is because I believe that attraction to The Smart is inherent in human nature, and that repulsion from The Smart is a corruption of that nature, born of pain and fear.  Rich or poor, black or white, liberal (parents) or conservative (parents), I do not believe that there has yet come a human child into this world who has no interest in seeing dinosaur bones, or that there ever will.

Do I believe, as Derbyshire claims “Liberals” do, that no-one is any smarter than anyone else?  No.  I readily admit that I, for example, am not as smart as was the late Carl Sagan (or lots of other people, for that matter).  Nevertheless, I have devoted my life, and whatever comparatively poor powers I do possess, to not only the accumulation, but the veneration as well, of knowledge for its own sake — and in so doing, one of the facts that has become most apparent to me is that this decision is very nearly always made at the expense of accumulating material wealth.  This not a complaint.  It is merely a dispassionate acknowledgment of the way things work.     

In closing, I must mention that, as odious as I find his essay, it would be unfair to say that John Derbyshire himself is not smart.  He most definitely is.  Five years ago, for example, he penned a very well-received cultural history of the Reimann hypothesis — and no matter how much of a dick someone can be, one does not write a 500-page love letter to a piece of mathematical trivia unless there is a place inside him that contains a very pure and very beautiful love of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  It is a profound pity that a man whose spirit houses such a great portion of this love has chosen to throw his lot in with people seemingly determined to eradicate it from human endeavor.

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