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World War I Centennial: Schlieffen Is Dead, but His Plan Lives On

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 51st installment in the series. (See all entries here .)

January 4, 1913: Schlieffen Is Dead, but His Plan Lives On

On January 4, 1913, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s plan of attack on France, died in bed of natural causes at the age of 79—thus missing, by just 19 months, the flawed implementation of his flawed plan, and the ensuing failure of the German offensive in the west. Born to the wife of a Prussian general on February 28, 1833, Schlieffen joined the Prussian army in 1854 and served for 51 years, including service in the wars that unified Germany in 1866 and 1870. Considered a brilliant strategist and military theorist, he was appointed chief of the German general staff in 1891, and immediately began work on the Schlieffen Plan, which would be the object of obsessive, single-minded effort for the rest of his life, continuing through his “retirement” in 1905 until his death; his last revisions were completed on December 28, 1912. The Schlieffen Plan was essentially a surprise attack on northern France through Belgium, which would allow the Germans to do an end run around the impregnable line of fortresses built by the French along the Franco-German border after their defeat in 1870 (including Verdun, Toul, Epinal and Belfort). In Schlieffen’s vision, seven armies containing almost 1.5 million troops would be divided into two wings of uneven strength. While the smaller southern (left) wing defended Germany’s border with France, the larger northern (right) wing would advance through Belgium and Luxembourg into France along a broadening front, wheeling southwest towards Paris, with the westernmost army skirting the English Channel and encompassing Chartres. With any luck, the French would concentrate their troops along the Franco-German border and engage the German left wing with an eye to regaining the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871; as the French were busy with the left wing, the right wing would pivot through northern France to complete a massive encirclement, closing the trap behind them. Schlieffen modeled his strategy on Hannibal’s destruction of the Roman armies at Cannae: “The enemy’s front is not the objective. The essential thing is to crush the enemy’s flanks … and complete the annihilation by attack upon his rear.” The whole thing would be over in six weeks—just enough time for Germany to redeploy its troops to the east to fight France’s main ally, Russia, which would probably take longer to mobilize its forces. The plan obviously disregarded the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg (and the Netherlands, in an early version), raising the possibility of intervention by Britain, which had guaranteed Belgian neutrality in 1839. But Schlieffen dismissed the small British army as a negligible quantity, and was confident that in any event Germany could defeat France before the British arrived. The most important thing was to avoid the nightmare scenario of a war on two fronts, and this meant finishing off France before Russia could mobilize, which in turn meant violating Belgian neutrality. The Schlieffen Plan reflected the scientific rationalization of warfare over the course of the 19th century, with a special focus on rail transportation, which played a central role in getting troops to the combat zone; indeed, strategy was based to a large degree on railway timetables, including how long it took to board troops, move them a certain distance, disembark them, and then send the train back to get another load—with thousands of trains operating simultaneously and hopefully avoiding traffic jams. Once armies were in the field, the speed of attack depended on how many (old-fashioned) roads were available to accommodate marching columns of troops, as well as how wide these roads were, the presence of bottlenecks, and so on. A large part of Schlieffen’s task, pursued obsessively over two decades, was simply mastering these myriad logistical issues. Although Schlieffen was venerated by many German officers, his plan also had its critics. Friedrich von Bernhardi, commander of the XVII Army Corps, criticized it as “mechanistic,” and Sigismund von Schlichting, the retired commander of the XIV Army Corps, called it “formalistic and schematic.” Both criticisms reflected the resentment of field commanders who stood to lose much of their freedom of action in Schlieffen’s excruciatingly detailed plan. Meanwhile, Count Gottlieb von Haeseler, commanding general of the XVI Army Corps, warned that the plan was too ambitious: “You cannot carry away the armed strength of a Great Power like a cat in a sack.” In fact, Schlieffen had his own doubts about the plan. For one thing, he was never actually able to make it work: after all the train scheduling, road analyzing, and related number crunching were done, he still foresaw “considerably weakened” German forces facing “more numerous” French forces, probably occupying strong defensive positions along the Marne River east of Paris. To surmount this final obstacle he figured he needed another eight army corps, around 200,000 men, in the westernmost armies—but there wasn’t any room for these troops on the trains and roads between Germany and France, already filled to capacity in his plan. In his “Great Memorandum” setting forth his plan in 1905, Schlieffen admitted that there was no solution to this dilemma: “Make these preparations how we may, we shall reach the conclusion that we are too weak to continue operations in this direction. We shall find the experience of all earlier conquerors confirmed, that a war of aggression calls for much strength and also consumes much, that this strength dwindles constantly as the defender’s increases, and all this particularly so in a country which bristles with fortresses.” In other words, the German offensive would probably peter out somewhere in the vicinity of Paris—which is exactly what happened in 1914. Incredibly, the German general staff seems to have simply ignored this all-important caveat. To make matters worse, Schlieffen’s successor as chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke (“the Younger”) wasn’t convinced of the need for such an overwhelming concentration of German strength in the right wing, and also feared a French victory over the weak left wing. Whereas Schlieffen’s original plan called for a ratio of 7:3 in the relative strengths of the right wing and left wing, in Moltke’s modified version of the plan the ratio was reduced to 5:3, with 580,000 men in the right wing’s First and Second Armies, and 345,000 in the left wing’s Sixth and Seventh Armies. Thus Schlieffen’s final words to Moltke on his deathbed—“Keep the right wing strong”—were in vain. See all installments of the WWI Centennial series here.
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Smart Shopping
This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

GADGETS, TOYS, AND MEDIA

Fitbit Surge Fitness Superwatch, Black, Large (US Version) for $229.94 (list price $249.95)

Brother Printer EHLL2360DW Compact Laser Printer, Duplex Printing & Wireless Networking, Refurbished for $69.99 (list price $89.99)

VicTsing Shower Speaker, Wireless Waterproof Speaker with 5W Driver, Suction Cup, Buit-in Mic, Hands-Free Speakerphone - Army Green for $18.99 (list price $24.99)

CardNinja Ultra-slim Self Adhesive Credit Card Wallet for Smartphones, Black for $6.95 (list price $12.99)

Anker Quick Charge 2.0 36W Dual USB Car Charger, PowerDrive+ 2 for Galaxy S7 / S6 / Edge / Plus, Note 5 / 4 and PowerIQ for iPhone 7 / 6s / Plus, iPad Pro / Air 2 / mini, LG, Nexus, HTC and More for $12.99 (list price $59.99)

Timex T235WY AM/FM Dual Alarm Clock Radio - White for $19.65 (list price $24.95)

Lexar JumpDrive P20 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive - LJDP20-64GCRBNA for $34.47 (list price $41.49)

Anker PowerLine+ Lightning Cable (6ft) Durable and Fast Charging Cable [Double Braided Nylon] for iPhone, iPad and More(White) for $13.99 (list price $39.99)

Roku Streaming Stick (3600R) - HD Streaming Player with Quad-Core Processor for $39.99 (list price $49.99)

AmazonBasics 6-Outlet Surge Protector Power Strip 2-Pack, 200 Joule - Black for $9.99 (list price $11.49)

DOSS Touch Wireless Bluetooth V4.0 Portable Speaker with HD Sound and Bass (Black) for $32.99 (list price $89.99)

Fujifilm Instax Mini Film Value Pack - 60 Images for $34.99 (list price $39.99)

Cell Phone Camera Lens - TURATA 2 in 1 Professional HD Camera Lens Kit 0.45X Super Wide Angle & 12.5X Macro Lens for iPhone7 6s 6s plus 6 plus 5s & Most Smartphone, Tablet for $11.98 (list price $30.99)

Sades Over-Ear Stereo Bass Gaming Headphone with Noise Isolation Microphone for Xbox One PC PS4 Laptop Phone for $23.99 (list price $39.99)

InkoTimes Bamboo Charging Station Dock Organizer for Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, Universal Cell Phones and Tablets, Compatiable with Anker, RAVPower, PowerAdd, 4/5/6-Port USB Charger for $35.99 (list price $59.99)

KITCHEN

Aicok Juicer Juice Extractor High Speed for Fruit and Vegetables Dual Speed Setting Centrifugal Fruit Machine Powerful 400 Watt with Juice Jug and Cleaning Brush, Premium Food Grade Stainless Steel for $48.99 (list price $99.99)

Rabbit Wine Opener Corkscrew BEST Wine Bottle Opener - 7 Piece Rabbit Ear Bundle with Stand, Bottle Plug, Wine Aerator, Drip Ring, Foil Cutter & EXTRA Teflon Spiral + Wooden Box Perfect Gift Set for $35.00 (list price $69.99)

Magic Bullet Blender, Small, Silver, 11 Piece Set for $34.00 (list price $39.99)

ThermoPro TP03A Digital Food Cooking Thermometer Instant Read Meat Thermometer for Kitchen BBQ Grill Smoker for $10.49 (list price $29.99)

Etekcity Digital Kitchen Scale Multifunction Food Scale, 11 lb 5 kg, Silver, Stainless Steel (Batteries Included) for $13.98 (list price $39.99)

Ado Glo Kitchen Shears - Stainless Steel Multi-Function Kitchen Scissors with Sharp Blade - Professional Poultry Shears for $12.95 (list price $34.99)

ISSIKI JAPAN Professional 8 Inch Chef's Knife, Gyutou Knife, Kitchen Knife, High Carbon Stainless Steel, Sharp Cutlery, Ergonomic Handle for $24.99 (list price $125.00)

12-Pack KEURIG Compatible Water Filters by K&J - Universal Fit (NOT CUISINART) Keurig Compatible Filters - Replacement Charcoal Water Filters for Keurig 2.0 (and older) Coffee Machines for $9.95 (list price $19.95)

Hamilton Beach 22910 Brushed Stainless Steel 2-Slice Toaster for $9.24 (list price $24.99)

Spiralizer 5-Blade Vegetable Slicer, Strongest-and-Heaviest Duty, Best Veggie Pasta & Spaghetti Maker for Low Carb/Paleo/Gluten-Free Meals, With 3 Exclusive Recipe eBooks for $29.99 (list price $49.99)

Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls by Finedine (Set of 6) Polished Mirror Finish Nesting Bowls, ¾ - 1.5 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 8 Quart - Cooking Supplies for $22.95 (list price $39.95)

Hiware 12-piece Good Stainless Steel Dinner Forks Cutlery Set, 8 Inches for $15.59 (list price $22.00)

HOME

Furhaven Orthopedic Mattress Pet Bed, Large, Cream, for Dogs and Cats for $25.49 (list price $30.44)

12 Air Plant Variety Pack - Bulk Assorted Species of Live Tillandsia House Plants for Sale - Wholesale Indoor Terrarium Air Plants by Aquatic Arts for $22.99 (list price $25.08)

Estilo 1 gallon Glass Mason Jar Double Beverage Drink Dispenser On Metal Stand With Leak Free Spigot, Clear for $27.98 (list price $31.88)

Poly and Bark Ralston Writing Desk - Standard Height - in Ash Grey for $49.99 (list price $55.99)

Outsunny 3 Person Canopy Porch Swing - Black for $132.67 (list price $99.99)

Sterilite 25306P01 3 Drawer Wide Weave Tower, Espresso Frame & Drawers w/ Driftwood Handles, 1-Pack for $19.83 (list price $22.44)

AmazonBasics Mid-Back Mesh Chair for $49.58 (list price $64.99)

Mpow LED Solar light, Bright Security Lighting Outdoor Motion Sensor Lighting for Garden, Patio for $14.99 (list price $19.99)

HOMFA Fashion Heavy Duty Garment Rack with Shelves 3-Tier Shoes Rack,Coat Rack Hooks,Clothes Rack with Hanger Bar (Black) for $49.99 (list price $110.99)

Premium 8 Piece Towel Set (Grey); 2 Bath Towels, 2 Hand Towels and 4 Washcloths - Cotton - Machine Washable, Hotel Quality, Super Soft and Highly Absorbent by Utopia Towels for $25.99 (list price $43.99)

HEALTH AND BEAUTY

VicTsing 300ml Cool Mist Humidifier Ultrasonic Aroma Essential Oil Diffuser for Office Home Bedroom Living Room Study Yoga Spa - Wood Grain for $49.99 (list price $29.99)

Nerdwax Stop Slipping Glasses as Seen on Shark Tank for $12.99 (list price $14.99)

Redken Short Sculpt 19 Touchable Texturizing Gel, 3.4 Ounce for $12.46 (list price $20.00)

Oak Leaf 7X Magnification LED Lighted Makeup Mirror,Bright Shaving Bathroom Vanity Mirror with Strong Suction Cup,Touch-Activated,Rotates 360 Degrees,Daylight Color,Battery Operated for $19.99 (list price $59.99)

BraceUP Stabilizing Lumbar Lower Back Brace and Support Belt with Dual Adjustable Straps and Breathable Mesh Panels (S/M) for $23.99 (list price $45.98)

Brightdeal Replacement Brush Heads for Philips Sonicare Toothbrush E Series HX7022/66, Essence, Xtreme, Elite and Advance (6-pack) for $19.99 (list price $25.99)

Philips Sonicare Essence Sonic Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush, White for $24.95 (list price $49.99)

Swiffer Duster Refills, Unscented Dusters Refill, 20 count for $13.97 (list price $15.99)

Braun Series 9-9095cc Wet and Dry Foil Shaver for Men with Cleaning Center, Electric Men's Razor, Razors, Shavers, Cordless Shaving System for $299.99 (list price $499.99)

Johnson's 24 Hr Moisturizing Wash Soft Body Lotion 12 fl oz (6 pack) for $26.99 (list price $29.99)

Germ-X 1000042965 Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer Lotion 4 oz. (Pack of 12) for $38.53 (list price $55.28)

Radha Beauty Natural Therapeutic Frankincense Essential Oil, 4 oz. for $16.95 (list price $49.99)

FHI Brands Stylus Thermal Styling Brush, Black for $79.99 (list price $99.99)

Thayers Alcohol-free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera, 12 oz for $10.51 (list price $19.95)

OFFICE, SCHOOL, AND CRAFTS

AmazonBasics Wireless Presenter for $21.00 (list price $24.99)

Anycolor 3 Pack Compatible Brother M221 M-K221 MK221 M Tape Black on White Label Tape for Brother P Touch Label Maker PT-90 PT-M95 PT-70BM PT-70 PT-65 PT-85 PT-45 (3/8" x 26.2' 9m x 8m) for $32.49 (list price $32.49)

EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Fine Tip, Assorted Colors, 8-Count for $7.37 (list price $11.49)

HIRALIY CH019 Aluminum Portable Laptop Stand for 13" & Smaller Laptops/Notebooks/ /Tablets (Grey) for $29.99 (list price $49.99)

Thick Classic Notebook with Pen Loop - Lemome Wide Ruled Hardcover Journal with Pocket to Write in + Page Dividers Gifts, Banded, Large, 180 Pages, 8.4 x 5.7 in for $14.99 (list price $25.99)

Clipboards (Set of 10) by Office Solutions Direct! Low Profile Clip Standard A4 Letter Size clipboard for $12.88 (list price $29.95)

VANRA Metal Mesh Desktop File Sorter Organizer Desk Tray Organize with 3 Letter Trays and 2 Vertical Upright Sections, Black for $33.98 (list price $68.80)

Paper Mate Profile Retractable Ballpoint Pens, Bold (1.4mm), Assorted Colors, 12 Count for $6.69 (list price $17.09)

Five Star Spiral Notebook, 3 Subject, College Ruled, 150 Sheets, Black, Cobalt Blue, Red, 3 PACK (73393) for $12.87 (list price $29.99)

HP Paper, Office Ultra White, 20lb, 8.5 x 11, 3 Hole Punch , 92 Bright, 500 Sheets / 1 Ream (113102R), Made In The USA for $4.01 (list price $7.01)

Sharpie Accent Retractable Highlighters, Chisel Tip, Assorted Colors, 8-Count for $7.54 (list price $8.38)

U Brands Contempo Magnetic Monthly Calendar Dry Erase Board, 11 x 14 Inches, White Frame for $5.73 (list price $8.99)

EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Chisel Tip, Fashion Colors, 8-Count for $4.94 (list price $8.92)

Board Dudes 18" x 22" Magnetic Dry Erase/Cork Combo Board (CYH10) for $13.19 (list price $20.23)

Electric Pencil Sharpener - Battery Operated (No Cord) - Ideal For No. 2 and Colored Pencils (Drawing, Coloring) - Small and Durable - Kid Friendly - Artist , Students , and Professionals for $16.99 (list price $34.99)

Sargent Art 36-1012 36 Count Premium Pink Eraser Best Buy Pack for $4.99 (list price $20.29)

OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

SHINE HAI Double Camping Hammock, Portable Lightweight Parachute Nylon Garden Hammock, Two Persons Bed for Backpacking, Camping, Travel, Beach, Yard for $23.99 (list price $139.99)

LUXUR Casual Foldable Nylon Backpack Hiking Sport Durable Lightweight Hand Bag 33L for Men and Women Rose Red for $8.99 (list price $35.99)

Polar Bottle Insulated Water Bottle (24-Ounce) (Starburst) for $8.92 (list price $11.99)

KT TAPE PRO Kinesiology Sports Tape, 20 Precut 10in Strips, 100% Synthetic, Water Resistant, Breathable, Videos, Team USA Olympic Edition, Black for $9.99 (list price $14.99)

Polar H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Sensor & Fitness Tracker (Black, Medium/XX-Large) for $41.12 (list price $58.49)

TaylorMade 2016 Tour Preferred Golf Balls (1 Dozen) for $24.99 (list price $39.00)

JOOLA Conversion Table Tennis Top with Foam Backing and Net Set for $308.39 (list price $374.99)

Homitt 2 Way Y Hose Connector, Garden Hose Splitter with Comfortable Rubberized Grip for Easy Garden Life for $11.99 (list price $29.99)

BLACK+DECKER LST300 12-Inch Lithium Trimmer / Edger, 20-volt for $55.30 (list price $64.99)

Caravan Sports Infinity Zero Gravity Chair, Beige for $36.23 (list price $79.99)

TOOLS

Schlage FE595 CAM 619 ACC Camelot Keypad Entry with Flex-Lock and Accent Levers, Satin Nickel for $87.73 (list price $109.67)

Etekcity 3 Pack Portable Outdoor LED Lantern with 9 AA Batteries - Camping Friendly (Black, Collapsible) for $17.99 (list price $50.99)

First Alert AF400-2 Tundra Fire Extinguisher Aerosol Spray Twin Pack for $22.49 (list price $28.92)

Maxcraft 60626 8-oz. Stubby Claw Hammer for $10.89 (list price $12.48)

Coleman Cable 02309 16/3 Vinyl Outdoor Extension Cord, Orange, 100-Feet for $22.92 (list price $26.30)

BLENDX 7mm to 19mm Ratchet Universal Sockets Metric Wrench Power Drill Adapter Set - Professional Repair Tools for $9.99 (list price $15.99)

First Alert SCO5CN Battery Operated Combination Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Alarm for $31.24 (list price $33.93)

URPOWER Tactical Flashlight Super Bright CREE LED Flashlight Zoomable Tactical Flashlight Rainproof Lighting Lamp Torch -with Rechargeable 18650 2800mAh Battery -For Cycling Hiking Camping Emergency for $10.99 (list price $39.99)

Custom Leathercraft 1100 Multi-Purpose Clip-on Zippered Poly Bags for $6.72 (list price $7.82)

Campbell Hausfeld 17-Piece Air Tool and Accessory Kit (MP284701AV) for $11.78 (list price $17.07)

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