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8 Trail-Blazing Female Firsts In Sports

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Last week, ESPN announced that Jessica Mendoza would serve as one of their full-time Sunday Night Baseball analysts for the 2016 season. The former Olympic softball player made headlines last October as the first broadcaster of a nationally televised postseason game when she called the wild card contest between the Yankees and Astros.

Although athletics are anything but fully integrated, there are fewer and fewer glass ceilings left to be broken as pioneers like Mendoza get their due. Take a look at a few historic female firsts across the sporting spectrum.

1. HELENE HATHAWAY ROBISON BRITTON // FIRST FEMALE MLB TEAM OWNER

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In 1912, Britton inherited a controlling interest in the St. Louis Cardinals from her uncle, who, along with her father, was responsible for the St. Louis Browns becoming the Cardinals. She took on the role of team president, as well, after divorcing the previous president, Schuyler P. Britton, in 1917. She is credited with being one of the first owners to host “Ladies Days” at the ballparks, but there is little record of how involved she was with the day-to-day operations of the franchise.

“Being a woman owner of a baseball club was difficult at first,” she is quoted as having said [PDF]. “It was also new to me, even though I had heard and talked baseball all my life. I loved it, though." Britton also said she regretted selling the team in 1918.

2. JOAN WHITNEY PAYSON // FIRST WOMAN TO FOUND AN MLB TEAM

With all due respect to Mrs. Britton, this is not quite as minor a distinction as it may seem. Payson's lifelong involvement in the game was personally motivated (even if funded by her family’s considerable wealth). In the 1950s, she started buying shares of the New York Giants. When the owners were debating on whether to move the team west in 1957, she and her ally M. Donald Grant led the charge to keep them in New York. After the Giants relocated to California, she was approached about purchasing a team for a possible third baseball league. Ultimately the proposed Continental League fizzled, but when New York was offered a National League expansion team, Payson ended up owning 80 percent of the stake.

The shareholders all gathered in her Manhattan apartment to name the team. And although Payson herself preferred the “Meadowlarks,” it was at this meeting that the Mets were born. For the rest of her life, Payson was both an active owner and a dedicated fan of the team. When she couldn’t be at games—which she watched from a box just behind first base—she carried a portable radio with her, even hiding it in her purse at high society events. She kept score so meticulously that she taught her chauffeur her specific technique so that he could fill out scorecards and airmail them to her when she couldn’t be at the game. Players loved her, especially when the Mets grew from the laughingstock of the NL in the early ‘60s to World Champions in ’69. And, just a few years before her death, she succeeded in bringing her favorite player from the Giants's New York era—Willie Mays—back to the city in a Mets uniform.

3. NANCY LIEBERMAN // FIRST WOMAN TO COACH A MEN'S PRO BASKETBALL TEAM

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Lieberman has earned a lot of “firsts” in her long and illustrious basketball career. She was on the U.S. team for the Olympics’ first-ever Women's Basketball tournament at the 1976 Montreal games (for which she and the team took home silver medals). She became the first woman to play pro basketball with men when she joined the now-defunct United States Basketball League in 1986. And when she was hired as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends, in 2009, she not only became the first woman head coach of a men’s pro basketball team, she became the first woman to coach a men’s pro team in any sport.

"In 1986, my goal was not to be a girl playing in a men's league, it was to be a player in a men's league," she said at the time. "In 2010, I don't want to be a woman who is coaching men, I want to be a coach who is coaching."

From head coach she transitioned to assistant GM of the Texas Legends. Just this past summer, she broke into the NBA as the assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings—the second woman to serve as a full-time assistant coach in the league, after Becky Hammon broke through in 2014. 

4. SARAH THOMAS // FIRST FULL-TIME FEMALE NFL REFEREE

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Thomas, who was hired as part of referee Pete Morelli’s crew at the start of this season, has to have an asterisk next to her “first.” In 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first woman to officiate an NFL game—but her opportunity came when a failure to reach a collective bargaining agreement forced a lockout of the league’s regular referees and she was ousted from her role once the strike was over. Thomas, on the other hand, was discovered by an NFL scout after 16 years of officiating grade school, high school, and college football games.

"When I got started in this 17 years ago, I had no idea that there weren't any females officiating," Thomas said in 2013 when she was still among the 21 finalists in the NFL officiating development program. "I never set out to become the first female official in the NFL."

5. MICHELE ROBERTS // FIRST WOMAN TO LEAD A MAJOR PROFESSIONAL-SPORTS UNION

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The former public defender and Washington D.C. litigator was elected executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in 2014 almost unanimously. And almost immediately, she began making waves for her frank criticisms of league business staples like the salary cap—which she calls “un-American.”

She’s loved basketball since her humble beginnings in a South Bronx housing project. But it’s her legal expertise that got her the job—Washingtonian magazine called her the “finest pure trial lawyer in Washington”—and the 400-plus players she represents are hoping she’ll be able to broker a deal more favorable to their interests than the one her predecessor struck to end the 2011 lockout. She’ll get a chance to prove herself when the current labor agreement expires in 2017, but until then, she’s making a name for herself as an outspoken trailblazer. When presenting her candidacy to the NBA players, she assured them that her "past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”

6. GAYLE SIERENS // FIRST WOMAN TO CALL PLAY-BY-PLAY IN THE NFL

In 1987, NBC executive Michael Weisman offered Sierens, an anchor for the Tampa NBC affiliate, the chance to make history as the first woman to call play-by-play for an NFL game. It was pretty clearly a publicity stunt—Weisman had also experimented with an announcer-less game a few years prior, though he denied this move was for publicity, citing the timing didn't make sense for that—but Sierens rose to the challenge. She spent months training during the preseason with legendary broadcaster Marty Glickman in preparation for the big game, and although the December 27 showdown between the Seahawks and Chiefs was unmemorable on the field, Sierens excelled on the broadcast. Her performance earned an invite back to call six games the following season in 1988. But the same year as the big game, Sierens had gotten married and gotten pregnant. Plus, her Tampa day job didn’t appreciate major sporting assignments calling her away. So Sierens had to choose whether to stay on with Channel 8 in Florida or else pursue broadcasting with the NFL. She turned down the chance to do more play-by-play and went on to have a long career in Tampa and almost no regrets.

"What I do have," she said after retiring, "are what-ifs." Since that game in 1987, no other woman had called play-by-play for the NFL until a preseason game in 2015, but before Beth Mowins became the second female announcer, Sierens worried that she missed her chance to break open that barrier.

"I don't know why a woman hasn't been able to break into that. It’s sad for me. It's sad that it didn't happen sooner. I hope that my performance was good enough that it merited other women being given the chance. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe everybody thought it was fun and cute and a great idea, but that's not really how we want to hear our games. I don't know. I may never know the answer to that. But I surely hope that someone soon gets an opportunity."

7. MANON RHÉAUME // FIRST WOMAN TO PLAY IN AN NHL EXHIBITION GAME

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Then-20-year-old Rhéaume didn’t care that her invite to an NHL training camp in 1992 was largely a publicity stunt to aid the brand new Tampa Bay Lightning. As the first woman to play for a Junior A men’s hockey game in Canada the year before, she knew she had real talent, and was eager for any opportunity to play at a higher level.

“A lot of people said that was just a publicity thing,” Rhéaume recalled last year. "But I had to wake up and face those shots every single day."

On September 23 she played one period as goalie in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues, allowing two goals on nine shots. The following year, Tampa Bay invited her back for another exhibition game, this time against the Boston Bruins, in which she once again allowed two goals over one period.

She parlayed that experience into five years in the now-defunct International Hockey League, becoming the first woman to play in a regular season professional game along the way. These days, she’s consulting on a biopic about her career.

8. ROBIN HERMAN // FIRST FEMALE SPORTS REPORTER IN A LOCKER ROOM

The debate about women in male locker rooms still rages on to this day. But it all started 40 years ago when Robin Herman, a 23-year-old reporter for The New York Times who had already been part of women’s history as a graduate of Princeton’s first female class, finally convinced the NHL to let her and other female reporters into the locker room for post-game interviews. The first concessions came at the 1975 All-Star Game in Montreal. Herman and Montreal radio reporter Marcel St. Cyr stole the show when they entered the locker room following the game.

"I kept saying, 'I’m not the story; the game is the story,'" Herman recalled in 2010. "But of course that wasn’t the case. The game was boring. A girl in the locker room was a story."

The All-Star Game didn’t change Herman’s experience on the hockey beat overnight. Later that same season, she wrote an article for the Times [PDF] reflecting on having been turned away for interviews, even in the wake of that historic entry. Even the Rangers—one of the teams she’d interviewed in their locker rooms following the All-Star Game—had put the issue to a vote at the demand of the athletes' wives. They voted against female reporters in the locker room.

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10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

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