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Ars on your lunch break: an early warning is key to kicking cancer

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Scott wishing cancer upon Terrance and Phillip. Terrance and Phillip could have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they'd had a reliable fast-acting cancer test like the one being developed for the Cancer X Prize. (credit: Viacom)

Below you’ll find the second and final installment of the After On interview with pediatric oncologist and medical futurist Daniel Kraft. Please check out part one if you missed it. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

Today, we build on the amazing results Google attained with its experimental eye scan study, and consider the unlikely things that might one day be meaningful early-warning markers for health problems. Maybe shifts in vocal tone? Tiny subtleties in sleep patterns? Social media activity? Or deep algorithms that correlate these and many, other signals? Could breath become a biomarker for cancer (almost certainly)? Could toe size foretell wild success on the NASCAR circuit (don’t count on it)?

Click here for a transcript and click here for an MP3 direct download.

We close by talking about the Cancer X Prize, which Daniel is overseeing. It’s all about early detection. Their highly-quotable target is a test, which can detect multiple cancers in under 24 hours for less than $24, anywhere from Tennessee to Tanzania.

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Categories: News

Native Americans managed the prairie for better bison hunts

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 10:56

Enlarge (credit: Alfred Jacob Miller via Wikimedia Commons)

Layers of charcoal residue buried beneath the northern Montana prairie show that pre-Columbian indigenous hunters in the Great Plains once burned patches of grassland to stimulate new growth. This created a tempting feast for bison herds, which the hunters then used to lure the bison in for the kill. And that, archaeologists say, means that even relatively small, mobile groups of hunter-gatherers can have a bigger environmental impact than they’ve been given credit for.

It’s not the fall, it’s the sudden stop at the end

For a group of hunters on foot, like the ancestors of today’s Blackfeet people, one of the most efficient ways to take down large prey like the American bison is to simply chase a group of them off a cliff and then harvest the remains below. Various hunter-gatherer societies around the world have used versions of this tactic over the last several thousand years, leaving piles of animal bones (many with evidence of butchering or cracking to get at marrow) at the bases of ancient bluffs. It takes planning and coordination among many hunters—and a decent amount of luck.

In the uplands of north-central Montana, on what is today the Blackfeet Reservation, pre-Columbian hunters built mile-long stretches of rock cairns called drivelines, which hunters used to help them funnel buffalo herds from fertile grazing patches called gathering basins, toward the edge of a steep bluff overlooking a tributary of the Two Medicine River. At two different driveline sites, archaeologists have radiocarbon dated bison bones to between 900 and 1650 CE, with the majority of kills happening in the final 250 years of that period. (The sites are on a tributary flowing into the Two Medicine River from the north and another on a different tributary flowing in from the south.)

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Categories: News

New study blaming warming on disrupted Atlantic flow has scientists “grumpy”

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 09:50

Enlarge / The blue "warming hole" in the North Atlantic seems to be related to changes in Atlantic Ocean circulation. (credit: NOAA)

Last week, Nature published a climate science study that reached a very surprising conclusion—one that other climate scientists are taking issue with. Two other scientists penned a critical response and posted it at Real Climate the same day, outlining their issues with the study's findings.

This kind of argument could be left to play out among scientists, but the BBC News covered the study without skeptical counterweight, so we thought it would be worth explaining what the arguments are about.

AMOC run amok

The study by Xianyao Chen of the Ocean University of China and Ka-Kit Tung at the University of Washington focused on the large-scale movement of water in the Atlantic Ocean. In this section of the ocean “conveyor belt” that wraps around the world, surface water is carried toward the pole before mixing downward around Greenland and heading south along the ocean floor.

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Categories: News

Wake up early Wednesday to see two launches within 15 minutes

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 18:58

Enlarge / The Ariane 5 rocket moves into the Kourou-based spaceport's ELA-3 launch complex. (credit: Arianespace)

The Western Hemisphere may host two launches within 15 minutes on Wednesday morning as both Arianespace and SpaceX prepare for satellite delivery missions. The launches are presently scheduled to occur between 7:25am ET (11:25 UTC) and 7:39am ET (11:39 UTC).

First up is Arianespace, with a mission launching from Kourou in French Guiana, over the Atlantic Ocean. This flight of the Ariane 5 ES rocket—the Ariane 5 fleet's third mission in 2018—will send four Galileo satellites into medium Earth orbit (at an altitude of 22,922km) for the European Commission. These satellites will form part of Europe's own global navigation system constellation.

Of note, this will be the 99th launch of the Ariane 5 rocket, which first flew in 1996. This rocket will continue flying until 2022, at which point Arianespace and the European Space Agency will phase out the booster in favor of the Ariane 6 rocket, designed for lower-cost operations in order to compete on the commercial launch market with SpaceX.

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Categories: News

Four huge rockets are due to debut in 2020—will any make it?

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 13:20

Enlarge / The Falcon Heavy is just the beginning of big rocket debuts ... (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

Rocket enthusiasts are lucky to see the debut of a handful of large, powerful rockets per decade. For example, during the last 10 years, just three rockets with a capacity of 25 tons or more to low-Earth orbit have made their debuts: the Russian Angara A5 flew in 2014, the Chinese Long March 5 in 2016, and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy earlier this year.

However, there is now a chance that up to four large and powerful rockets will make their debuts during a single year, as four boosters have maiden launches scheduled for 2020. Of course, there is also a chance that none of them will fly. Delays are often inevitable in the launch industry, especially with such large and in some ways unprecedented boosters. But given the uncertainty and the unprecedented potential, we thought it might be fun to assess whether any or all of them might make it.

Ars reached out to several launch industry experts and colleagues in aerospace journalism to gauge opinions on the viability of these launch dates. To be perfectly clear: the "confidence" in achieving a 2020 launch—and "estimated launch dates" below are at best educated guesses—is a reflection of what these informed people think may happen. Keep in mind that there are many, many variables that go into an actual launch date: finding, hardware readiness, component testing, integrated testing, software, ground systems readiness, and so much more. So caveat emptor.

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Categories: News

Impossible Burgers’ key, bloody ingredient gets long awaited nod from FDA

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 12:30

Enlarge / A meatless Impossible Burger, now with a dash of FDA acceptance. (credit: Impossible Foods | Giselle Guerrero)

The chic, plant-based Impossible Burger that browns and “bleeds” like the real thing just got a little more possible.

On Monday July 23, the company behind the meatless meat, Impossible Foods, announced that the Food and Drug Administration had finally accepted its latest application to consider the burger’s key ingredient safe to eat. The final nod puts that ingredient—dubbed soy leghemoglobin—firmly in the regulatory category of “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.

That’s comforting news for those of us already chowing down on the faux patties, which are currently being fried up in nearly 3,000 restaurants in the US and Hong Kong. Until now, the burgers had flipped into a regulatory gray zone.

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Categories: News

Ars on your lunch break: teaching AI to diagnose patient health risks

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Google trained an AI to make inferences about a patient's health from retinal scans. Unfortunately, even if this kind of retinal scan diagnosis were commonplace in the future, it wouldn't have really done much to help poor MSG Apone. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

This week we’re serializing another episode of the After On Podcast here on Ars. Our guest is pediatric oncologist and medical futurist Daniel Kraft. We’ll run the interview in two installments, wrapping it up tomorrow (I mistakenly say it’ll be three installments in my introduction to the audio file—apologies).

Daniel founded and runs the Exponential Medicine Conference, which is one of the largest cross-disciplinary gatherings of life science researchers and innovators. He also founded and runs the medical faculty at Singularity University—an academic institution so quirky, it could only have sprouted up from Silicon Valley’s soil.

When Daniel does a presentation, he's the opposite of that speaker we've all seen—the one who has to do everything possible to pad their words and slides to fill a time slot. With Daniel, I always sense that there's an entire presentation lurking behind every slide that he puts on the screen. He just has so much surface area from his two highly complimentary jobs, which connect him to hundreds of startups and researchers every year. Daniel is particularly deep in medical devices—ranging from consumer-grade gear to tools that only turn up in research hospitals. And as an oncologist, he’s of course deeply informed about cancer.

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Categories: News

Student engineers build hyperloop test pods with commercial-class top speeds

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 13:00

Enlarge / All the action happened at this end of the 3/4 mile low-pressure test track. A pyramid and an obelisk of Boring Company bricks and EPFLoop's pod cover can be seen beside it. (credit: Megan Geuss)

HAWTHORNE, CA—On a sweltering day in Southern California, 20 groups of student engineers gathered on a side street near the SpaceX headquarters to show off the Hyperloop pods that they had spent the better part of a year putting together.

The teams had spent the previous days showing SpaceX engineers their designs and testing them in vacuum chambers and on open-air tracks. The SpaceX engineers voted on their favorite teams, and the top three were awarded time on the three-quarter-mile low-pressure test track that SpaceX has built next to its headquarters. Delft University of Technology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPF), and WARR (a student group within Munich Technical University) were the three teams to win the coveted tube time.

WARR defended its two previous wins again: this time with an average speed of 284 miles per hour and a top speed of 290mph, according to SpaceX announcements during the competition.

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Categories: News

Now witness the firepower of this fully operational Falcon 9 rocket

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 08:20

Enlarge / All five major versions of the Falcon 9 rocket, side by side. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

The Falcon 9 rocket has undergone four major revisions over the last eight years, culminating in the Block 5 rocket. The initial expendable version of the rocket (v1.0) could lift about 10.5 tons to low-Earth orbit. This was a nice, tidy rocket but hardly a superstar.

However, one of the defining features of SpaceX is the company's ruthless devotion to innovation. And while it may be reasonable to criticize the company for moving too far too quickly and with not quite enough focus on the here and now—when the culture of innovation works, it works.

In just eight years, SpaceX has jumped from the first version of its rocket to the Block 5 rocket. This powerful rocket can lift nearly 23 tons to low-Earth orbit, having undergone hundreds of changes and upgrades since its initial flight. Theoretically, its first stage will be capable of 10 flights before requiring significant refurbishment. It is so capable that even company founder Elon Musk (the high minister of the culture of innovation at SpaceX) says it's good enough. This is probably the last major revision of the Falcon 9.

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Categories: News

Risky Thailand cave rescue relied on talent, luck—and on sticking to the rules

Sun, 07/22/2018 - 09:45

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Last week, the world was riveted by the successful rescue of a youth soccer team as they and their coach were pulled out of a flooded cave in Thailand. The team had been stranded on a narrow rock shelf in the dark for two weeks, the way out blocked by turbid stormwater. The rescue involved far more than a few divers putting on gear and heading into the cave—it required a tremendous amount of technical skill and posed extreme danger.

But why, exactly, was it so dangerous? And what would it feel like to dive in those kinds of conditions?

I’m a professional diver with 16 years of dive experience, including safety diving and cave diving, and I have trained numerous scuba instructors. I also work full-time in a safety diving role, so answering the first question from a technical perspective is easy enough. The short answer is that all cave diving is dangerous (we'll dig into why below).

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Categories: News

SpaceX set to fly its second Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 early Sunday

Sat, 07/21/2018 - 18:10

Enlarge / The Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket, on the launch pad, with its Telstar 19V payload. (credit: SpaceX)

Having worked through its fleet of used Block 4 rockets, SpaceX will now transition into flying its more advanced Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket full time. As early as 1:50am ET (05:50 UTC) Sunday, SpaceX will attempt to launch the Telstar 19V satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission has a four-hour launch window.

This will be the second launch of the new version of its Block 5 rocket. The first one had a flawless debut on May 11, and the first stage made a safe return to a drone ship, as expected. Since then, SpaceX engineers have been assessing how that Block 5 core, optimized for reusability, actually performed during that flight.

“We are going to be very rigorous in taking this rocket apart and confirming our design assumptions to be confident that is indeed able to be reused without taking apart,” Musk said in May, at the time of the first Block 5 flight. “Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm it does not need to be taken apart.”

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Categories: News

Boeing suffers a setback with Starliner’s pad abort test [Updated]

Sat, 07/21/2018 - 14:20

Enlarge / In January 2018, Boeing shared this photo of the Starliner Pad Abort Test and Orbital Flight Test vehicles under construction in Florida. (credit: Boeing)

In late June, an anomaly occurred during preparations for Boeing's test of the Starliner spacecraft and its launch abort system. On Saturday, after Ars published a short report on the issue at a test site in White Sands, New Mexico, based on input from sources, Boeing provided additional information about the problem. This story has been updated to reflect the Boeing statement.

The company said it conducted a hot-fire test of the launch-abort engines on an integrated service module at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico in June. The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration, but during engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak. "We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners," the statement said. "We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action. Flight safety and risk mitigation are why we conduct such rigorous testing, and anomalies are a natural part of any test program."

The pad abort test is a necessary part of certifying spacecraft for flight, as it ensures the ability of the spacecraft to pull rapidly away from its rocket in the case of some emergency during liftoff or ascent into space.

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Categories: News

Judge dismisses New York City climate lawsuit against oil companies

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 13:52

Enlarge / A home at the corner of B 72nd Street and Bayfield Avenue is surrounded by marsh in Averne on the Rockaway peninsula in the Queens borough of New York, US, on Friday, October 10, 2014. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images (credit: Getty Images)

On Thursday, a US District judge dismissed a lawsuit from the City of New York against major oil companies BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell. New York City had alleged that the oil majors created a nuisance by actively promoting oil use for decades, even after they were presented with significant and reliable information showing that catastrophic effects from climate change would result. The judge didn't dispute the effects of climate change, but he did dispute (PDF) that courts exercising state law could remedy the situation.

In the January complaint, NYC demanded that the oil majors pay for the costs of adapting to climate change, like expanding wastewater storage areas, building new pumping facilities to prevent flooding, and installing new infrastructure to weather storms. The city stated that the oil companies named in the suit were responsible for more than 11 percent of carbon and methane emissions that had built up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, more than all other individual industrial contributors.

The oil companies didn't dispute that, and neither did the judge. As early as the mid-1980s, the judge's opinion states, "Exxon and other major oil and gas companies, including Mobil and Shell, took actions to protect their own business assets from the impacts of climate change, including raising the decks of offshore platforms, protecting pipelines from coastal erosion, and designing helipads, pipelines, and roads in the warming Arctic."

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Categories: News

Star’s dimming and brightening may indicate it’s eating a planet

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 13:48

Enlarge / An artist's conception of the star bathed in debris, along with an image of the surge in X-rays (inset). (credit: NASA/Chandra)

Planets don't sit still. The seemingly stable orbits of our Solar System could easily give the impression that once a planet forms, it tends to stay in orbit where it started. But evidence has piled up that our Solar System probably isn't as stable as we'd like to think, and many of the exosolar systems we've now seen can't possibly have formed in their current state. In a few cases, we've spotted stars that contain elements that were probably delivered by a planet spiraling in.

Now, scientists may have caught the process while it was happening. A star that dimmed for a couple years has somehow ended up with 15 times the iron it had in earlier observations, suggesting it ran into a planet or a few smaller planet-forming bodies.

Not so stable

If you were to take the current configuration of the Solar System and run it forward a million years, nothing much would change—all the planets would be in the same orbits they started in. But run it forward a few billion years and strange things can happen. The orbital setup is chaotic, and future changes are very sensitive to the starting conditions. In addition, many of the features of the Solar System are hard to explain using planetary formation models, leading to the proposal of the Grand Tack, in which a much younger Jupiter migrated inward toward the Sun before being dragged out to its current position by Saturn.

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Categories: News

Fossil fuel lobbyists grossly outspend “Big Green”

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 12:50

Enlarge (credit: Stephen Melkisethian)

One of the stranger conspiracy theories against climate science is that corporate interests are pulling all the strings so that “Big Green” can get rich from action against climate change. Of course, it’s no secret that industries related to fossil fuels have lobbied for the exact opposite, pushing to avoid any significant climate policy.

So what do American industries spend to lobby Congress on this issue?

Drexel University’s Robert Brulle used lobbying reporting laws to find out. Not every penny spent on persuading congresspeople has to be reported—and a lot of political activities, like think tank funding, don’t count as lobbying. But spending on lobbying itself has been tracked in the US since a 1995 law mandated it. Brulle was able to sift through climate-related expenditures between 2000 and 2016, sorting the entities into groups.

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Categories: News

As the SpaceX steamroller surges, European rocket industry vows to resist

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 08:15

Enlarge / First hot firing of the P120C solid rocket motor that will be used by Europe's new Vega-C and Ariane 6 rockets. (credit: ESA/CNES)

KOUROU, French Guiana—White light flooded in through large windows behind Alain Charmeau as he mused about the new age of rocketry. The brilliant sunrise promised another idyllic day in this beach town, but outside the sands remained untroubled by the feet of tourists.

Lamentably, the nearshore waters of this former French colony are chocolate rather than azure, muddied by outflow from the Amazon River. French Guiana has other compensating assets, however. It lies just 5.3 degrees north of the equator. Neither tropical cyclones nor earthquakes threaten the area. And its coast offers untrammeled access to both the east and north. These natural gifts have helped this remote region become one of the world’s busiest spaceports.

From here, Europe has established a long but largely unheralded history in the global rocket industry. Nearly three decades ago, it became the first provider of commercial launch services. If your company or country had a satellite and enough money, Europe would fly it into space for you. Remarkably, more than half of all telecom satellites in service today were launched from this sprawling spaceport.

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Categories: News

Rocket Report: Small sat space race goes global, SpaceX nearing demo flight

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson/SpaceX)

Welcome to Edition 1.09 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have several stories about the small-satellite launch race going global. There is also coverage of Blue Origin's daring launch and success for Europe in French Guiana with the test of a critical new solid rocket booster.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Blue Origin continues to stringently test New Shepard. During its ninth flight test, Blue Origin engineers subjected New Shepard to a high-altitude escape motor test. Both the rocket, which had already separated from the capsule, and the spacecraft itself passed the test with flying colors. The escape motor firing pushed the spacecraft to a record high altitude of 119km.

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Categories: News

The 5,000% price hike that made Martin Shkreli infamous is no longer paying off

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 19:00

Enlarge / NEW YORK - AUGUST 4: Shkreli was found guilty on three of the eight counts involving securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud. (credit: Getty | Drew Angerer)

Martin Shkreli’s former pharmaceutical company lost more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2018 amid waning sales of the drug made famous by Shkreli’s more than 5,000-percent price increase. That’s according to financial documents recently reviewed by Stat.

Vyera Pharmaceuticals, formerly known as Turing Pharmaceuticals, had brazenly maintained Shkreli’s despised price hike of the drug Daraprim, which treats relatively rare parasitic infections that often strike babies and HIV/AIDS patients. As founder and CEO of Turing, Shkreli bought the rights to the cheap, off-patent drug and—without any generic competitors—abruptly raised its price from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill in the fall of 2015.

The move was wildly unpopular (to say the least) and attracted intense public scrutiny to the country’s quickly escalating drug costs. But it was a lucrative decision for Turing and later Vyera—at least until recently.

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Categories: News

“Fingerprint” of humanity’s climate impact seen in the seasons

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 16:33

Enlarge / Trends in the satellite-measured seasonal temperature cycle of the troposphere (red means larger temperature swing, blue means smaller temperature swing). (credit: Santer et al./Science)

One reason climate scientists have been able to confidently determine that humans are responsible for modern warming is that they have more than just weather records to work with. There are many places where a human cause can be identified if you know how to dust for fingerprints. For example, while the lower atmosphere warms, the stratosphere is actually cooling. That’s what you expect when greenhouse gases—rather than the Sun—are behind the warming.

A new study led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Ben Santer looked for fingerprints in a new place: the seasonal cycle of temperatures. The ideal tool for analyzing this is the global temperature record produced by satellites, which began their watch in 1979. That means they don’t go back nearly as far as weather-station records, but the dataset is now long enough to be useful for studies like this.

Hot and cold

While everyone uses the same satellites, several different groups actually maintain separate satellite temperature datasets. This is because the measurements are far from straightforward, and a ton of work goes into all the necessary processing to spit out temperature maps. As a result, the different datasets don’t always line up perfectly with each other—or with those analyzed with previous versions of their processing algorithm. So in this study, the researchers used the most recent two versions of three different datasets.

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Categories: News

Ars on your lunch break: The consequences of a government genetic database

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / Do you want GATTACA? Because this might be how we get GATTACA. (credit: Columbia Pictures)

Below you’ll find the third and final installment of my interview with medical geneticist Robert Green about the promise and pitfalls that could lie in reading out your full genome. Please check out parts one and two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

Today we open with a heartening story about an infant who went through one of Robert’s studies and may have picked up fifteen IQ points as a direct result (this is neither a metaphor nor an exaggeration)! It’s an early—and perhaps even the first—hard example of how full-genome sequencing at birth could one day save innumerable lives and preclude untold human suffering.

Click here for a transcript and click here for an MP3 direct download.

We then talk about the vast potential of pre-conception genetic screening and an early initiative in this area that has almost eradicated an awful genetic disease that long plagued the Ashkenazi Jewish population.

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