11 Twisted Facts About ‘The Far Side’

For 15 years, "The Far Side" added a dash of irreverence to the funny pages. Offbeat, macabre, and sometimes controversial, Gary Larson’s trailblazing cartoon was a gigantic success that ran in nearly 2000 newspapers at the height of its popularity. It also gave an entire generation of humorists a renewed appreciation for cow jokes.

Here are 11 things you should know about this highly-evolved comic strip.

1. IT EVOLVED FROM AN EARLIER STRIP CALLED NATURE’S WAY.

A native of Tacoma, Washington, Gary Larson was born on August 14, 1950. At a very young age, he developed the passion for wildlife that would give "The Far Side" its unique flavor. In his early years, Larson spent countless hours chasing amphibians and nurturing pet snakes. So when he enrolled at Washington State University, his decision to major in biology surprised no one. But halfway through college, Larson’s focus shifted. “I didn’t want to go to school for more than four years, and I didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s degree in biology, so I switched over and got my degree in communications,” he told The New York Times. “It was one of the most idiotic things I ever did.” Had he pursued a scientific career, Larson says that he’d want to become an entomologist.

After graduating, he landed a job at a record store. Dissatisfied with the gig, Larson began to draw bizarre, single-panel cartoons in his spare time. One day in 1976, he presented six of these to the editor of the popular Seattle magazine Pacific Search. The half-dozen comics were swiftly bought up (for $3 apiece) and published under the title "Nature’s Way." Following his print debut, Larson took a three-year hiatus from cartooning. Then, in 1979, The Seattle Times agreed to revive "Nature’s Way" as a weekly comic strip. Riding high on newfound success, Larson decided to see if any other publications might be interested in his work. The quest began—and ended—with a visit to the San Francisco Chronicle’s headquarters. Editor Stan Arnold took an immediate liking to Larson’s comic strip and successfully got it syndicated nationwide.

Early on in the process, Larson was asked if he’d mind changing the title from "Nature’s Way" to "The Far Side." Mildly put, this wasn’t a problem; Larson once joked that for all he cared, “They could have called it ‘Revenge of the Zucchini People.’” "The Far Side" that we all know and love made its grand debut in newspapers across America in January, 1980.

2. FROM THE GET-GO, GARY LARSON DIDN’T WANT "THE FAR SIDE" TO INCLUDE RECURRING CHARACTERS.

Chronicle Features syndicated "The Far Side" and asked Larson to embrace at least one aspect of the standard comic strip formula before it was distributed nationally. “They… wanted me to develop characters like Charlie Brown or something [who] would always come back,” the cartoonist said in a 1998 NPR interview. At the time, he explains, it was widely believed that every strip needed a cast in order to be successful. Larson felt otherwise.

“I instinctively thought of that as very limiting,” Larson explained. “And I also just didn’t see humor as something that had to be confined to one particular character. To me, what was exciting was trying to do something that would crack someone up. And I didn’t see how characters or a particular character enhanced that. In fact, I think it would work against it in some cases. A certain face on a character would work in one instance but not in another. Although admittedly, as the years went by, all my stuff got boiled down to about six faces.”

3. AN ODD CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS ONE OF LARSON’S BIGGEST INSPIRATIONS.

You need a fairly warped imagination to come up with things like teenage dragons lighting their sneezes. "The Far Side" brand of comedy took some of its cues from Larson’s family and what he has described as their “morbid sense of humor.” Older brother Dan Larson left a particularly big impact on his developing mind: When the two weren’t out collecting tadpoles or salamanders together, Dan would pull all sorts of pranks on his younger sibling. “[He’d] scare the hell out of me,” the cartoonist said.

Another influence was the picture book Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson. True to its title, the story is about a large bear who goes around sitting on other animals' houses. In 1986, the TV program 20/20 ran a feature on Larson. Halfway through the interview, he was visibly delighted when Lynn Sherr surprised him with a copy of the then-out-of-print book. “There was something so mesmerizing about the image of this big bear going through the forest and squashing the homes of these little animals,” Larson said. “I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”

4. ONE EARLY STRIP CONFUSED SO MANY READERS THAT LARSON HAD TO EXPLAIN ITS MEANING IN A PRESS RELEASE. 

With "The Far Side," Larson turned bovine jokes into a real cash cow. From gags about vacationing cattle to the exploits of a bloodthirsty vampcow, the strip was loaded with heifer hilarity. “I’ve always thought the word cow was funny,” Larson said. “And cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the line between tragedy and humor.”

Every so often, though, this affinity for the hoofed mammals got him into trouble. In 1982, Larson drew a cartoon that was supposed to satirize the outdated anthropological belief that, of all creatures, only Homo sapiens makes tools. The strip in question shows a cow presenting an assortment of low-tech gadgets she’s built. Larson’s caption reads, simply, “Cow Tools.” Some people didn’t get the joke. In fact, hardly anyone did. Chronicle Features was bombarded with letters and phone calls from confused readers begging for an explanation. Within 24 hours of the strip's publication, Larson was asked to write a press release explaining its significance to the masses.

That October, his official statement appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S. “The cartoon was meant to be an exercise in silliness,” it claims. Larson goes on to say “I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average ‘Far Side’ reader.” Embarrassing as this incident was, Larson got the last laugh. On more than one occasion, he’s credited the "Cow Tools" debacle with boosting the popularity of "The Far Side."

5. "THE FAR SIDE" GAVE BIRTH TO A WIDELY-USED PALEONTOLOGY TERM.

Stegosaurus is world-famous for its lime-sized brain and the quartet of nasty-looking spikes on its tail. A 1982 "Far Side" strip decided to have a little fun with the latter attribute. In that cartoon, we find an early human anachronistically lecturing his fellow cavemen about dinosaur-related hazards. Pointing at the rear end of a Stegosaurus diagram, he says “Now this end is called the thagomizer … after the late Thag Simmons.” Without meaning to, Larson’s strip plugged a gap in the scientific lexicon. Previously, nobody had ever given a name to the unique arrangement of tail spikes found on Stegosaurus and its relatives. But today, many paleontologists use the word “thagomizer” when describing this apparatus, even in scientific journals.

6. FANS OF THE STRIP HAVE NAMED THREE DIFFERENT INSECTS AFTER GARY LARSON.

In 1989, entomologist Dale Clayton discovered a brand new species of biting louse that exclusively targets owls. When the time came to name it, his first choice was Strigiphilus garylarsoni. Clayton wrote the cartoonist to ask for his blessing. This proposed insect name, he explained, was the scientist’s way of recognizing the “enormous contribution that my colleagues and I feel you have made to biology through your cartoons.” Larson happily gave Clayton the green light. “I considered this an extreme honor,” the "Far Side" creator said in retrospect. “Besides, I knew that nobody was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me.”

Indeed, scientific nomenclature has yet to give us a “Larson’s swan.” However, in addition to Strigiphilus garylarsoni, there’s now a beetle called Garylarsonus and a butterfly known as Serratoterga larsoni.

7. ONE COMIC TOOK SOME HEAT FROM THE JANE GOODALL INSTITUTE.  

“Well, well—another blonde hair … Conducting a little more ‘research’ with that Jane Goodall tramp?” A sassy chimpanzee makes this remark while grooming her mate in a 1987 "Far Side" comic. The one-liner started a controversy that erupted and then vanished in record time. Shortly after the cartoon ran, Larson’s syndicate received an angry letter from the Jane Goodall Institute’s executive director. Its author minced no words. “To refer to Dr. Goodall as a tramp is inexcusable—even by a self-described ‘loony’ such as Larson,” read the dispatch.

“I was horrified,” Larson wrote in The Prehistory of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Collection. “Not so much from a fear of being sued … but because of my deep respect for Jane Goodall and her well-known contributions to primatology. The last thing in the world I would have intentionally done was offend Dr. Goodall in any way.”

But in a stunning turn of events, it turns out that Goodall herself loved the comic. “I thought it was very funny. And I think if you make a Gary Larson cartoon, boy you’ve made it,” she said. The chimpanzee expert claimed that she was away in Africa when the director lashed out at Larson’s syndicate without her knowledge. Later, the “offending” cartoon appeared on special T-shirts that generated cash for the Institute. Also, Larson got the chance to visit one of Goodall’s research facilities in 1988. Here, he met a chimp named Frodo—who apparently wasn’t a "Far Side" fan. Without warning, Frodo pounced on an unsuspecting Larson, leaving the artist with a patchwork of scrapes and bruises.  

8. AN OHIO NEWSPAPER SWITCHED THE CAPTIONS FROM "DENNIS THE MENACE" AND "THE FAR SIDE"—TWICE.

The Dayton Daily News committed an unforgettable funny page blunder in August, 1981. Back then, the paper would run "The Far Side" right next to the more traditional "Dennis the Menace." On that fateful August day, their captions were switched. "The Far Side" strip now showed a young snake who kvetches at the family dinner table by saying “Lucky I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” Elsewhere, Dennis Mitchell—who’s munching on a sandwich of his own—groans “Oh brother … Not hamsters again!”

“What’s most embarrassing about this is how immensely improved both cartoons turned out to be,” Larson opined in The Prehistory of The Far Side. Somebody at the Dayton Daily News made the same mistake two years later. This time, readers were confronted with a psychic cavewoman asking “If I get as big as Dad, won’t my skin be too TIGHT?” Dennis Mitchell, meanwhile, casually looked his mother in the eye and said “I see your little, petrified skull … labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere.”

9. TWO ANIMATED "FAR SIDE" SHORTS EXIST.

CBS aired a 20-minute program called Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side in 1994. Conceived as a Halloween special, the film was essentially an animated reinterpretation of several classic "Far Side" cartoons. Marv Newland—an animator whose best-known work is the Larson-esque short film Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)—directed Tales, which won a Grand Prix award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The year 1997 brought with it a sequel, Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side II. By then, the comic strip which inspired both movies had been laid to rest, as Larson retired in 1995. He has said that the two animated projects presented an interesting challenge because he “didn’t want any dialogue” in the finished products.

10. A "FAR SIDE" MUSEUM EXHIBIT OPENED IN 1985.

Natural History Magazine once called Gary Larson “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community.” For physicists, biologists, and naturalists around the world, his work is the subject of near-universal admiration. By the mid-1980s, numerous hallways in the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences had basically been wallpapered with "Far Side" cartoons. Inspired by this décor, the facility got the bright idea to set up a special exhibit in Larson’s honor. Dubbed "The Far Side of Science," it featured some 600 individual cartoons. The display first opened at the CAS in December, 1985 then traveled through such cities as Los Angeles, Denver, and Orlando—often breaking attendance records along the way.

11. LARSON HAS LIKENED HIS OTHER BIG PASSION—MUSIC—TO CARTOONING.

A lifelong jazz fan, Larson would frequently listen to the work of genre maestros when he needed to generate ideas for "Far Side" comics. He ranks legendary guitarist Herb Ellis among his favorite musicians. In 1989, Ellis asked Larson if he’d design the cover of his next album, which was to be named “Doggin’ Around.” The humorist took the job—in exchange for a guitar lesson. Nowadays, with "The Far Side" (mostly) in his rear view mirror, Larson dedicates a portion of each day to honing his skills as a jazz guitarist.

This new pursuit, he says, isn’t all that different from drawing comics. “It has some parallels to cartooning because it’s improvisational—you never know exactly how something is going to turn out,” Larson told the Associated Press. “Taking a solo on a tune is always a little bit scary. Yet it has structure, there are certain rules to follow, and you try to create something with those rules.”

15 Animal Names That Can Be Used As Verbs

iStock.com/fotojagodka
iStock.com/fotojagodka

People can go fishing, rabbit on incessantly, dog one another, and horse around. But because of their usefulness in completing burdensome work, horse has also been used in (originally naval) slang since the mid-19th century to mean “to work to the point of exhaustion”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to drive or urge at work unfairly or tyrannically.” But horses aren’t the only animals whose names can be “verbed.” From turtles to tigers, you can drop any one of these 15 creatures into your everyday conversation.

1. Bulldog

No one is entirely sure why bulldogs are called bulldogs, with different theories pointing to everything from their bull-like stature to their bullish faces to the fact that they might once have been bred to bait bulls. Whatever the origin, the bulldog’s strength and its robust, resilient behavior means that you can use its name as a verb meaning “to attack roughly,” or “to wrestle to the ground.”

2. Tiger

A tiger
iStock.com/konmesa

If you tiger, then you walk to and fro, like a tiger pacing in a cage. If you tiger something, then you paint or mark it with contrasting stripes.

3. Spider

Jumping spider
iStock.com/elthar2007

As well as being used simply to mean “to creep” or “to move like a spider,” if you ensnare or entrap something, or else cover it in a cobweb-like pattern, then you spider it.

4. Cat

British shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes
iStock.com/Leesle

Because the cathead is the horizontal beam at the bow of a ship that’s used to raise an anchor, the word cat has a number of nautical uses as a verb, including “to lift an anchor from the water,” “to secure an anchor,” and “to draw an anchor through the water.” But because shooting the cat was 19th century slang for being sick from drinking too much, you can also use cat to mean “to vomit.”

5. Vulture

White-backed vulture
iStock.com/EcoPic

Vultures’ grim feeding habits and their remarkable flying ability have given the word two meanings as a verb in English. Feel free to use it to mean “to eat voraciously” or “to tear at your food,” or else “to descend steadily through the air.”

6. Owl

Owl in flight
iStock.com/WhitcombeRD

Owling (as well as being a short-lived social media craze) was once the name given to the crime of smuggling sheep and wool from England to the continent—a crime so-called because the nefarious “owlers” carried out their crimes at night. That might not be the most useful of words these days of course, so feel free to also use owl to mean “to act wisely, despite not knowing anything.”

7. Shark

It’s easy to presume that the use of shark as a verb to mean “to act like a predator” (which is the same shark as in loanshark, incidentally) derives from the deadly sea creatures. In fact, it might be the opposite: Both meanings of the word shark date back to the late 16th century, but it’s possible that the verb shark is the older of the two. If so, it’s possible that it comes from the earlier word shirk (in the sense of using deceit or trickery to avoid work) or else a northeastern French word, cherquier, which was often used in a phrase that essentially meant “to sponge of others” or “to act as a parasite.” So how did sea-dwelling sharks come to be called sharks? It’s possible the deceitful sharks gave their name to the menacing creatures, or else the two could be completely unrelated—and, thanks to a sea battle off the Yucatan peninsula in 1569, shark could in fact be a Mayan word.

8. Monkey

Chimpanzee looking surprised
iStock.com/photomaru

As well as meaning “to play the fool” or “to behave playfully”—as in “monkeying around”—monkey, like ape, can also be used to mean “to mimic” or “to copy someone’s movements or actions.”

9. Turtle

If a boat “turns turtle,” then it capsizes and flips over, so that it looks like a turtle’s domed shell floating atop the water. Because of that, to turtle something is to turn it upside down.

10. Snail

Burgundy snail
iStock.com/AlexRaths

For obvious reasons, snail has been used to mean “to move slowly” since the late 16th century, but because of the snail’s coiled shell, you can also use snail to mean “to draw or carve a spiral,” or “to roll into a spiral shape.”

11. Porcupine

Porcupine walking
iStock.com/ser-y-star

When your hair stands on end, feel free to say that it porcupined.

12. Canary

Canary birds take their name from the Canary Islands, which, somewhat confusingly, take their name from canis, the Latin word for “dog.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the canary was also the name of an energetic dance inspired by a traditional dance performed by the natives of the Canary Islands. And because of that, you can also use the word canary as a verb meaning “to dance in a lively fashion.”

13. Earwig

Earwig
iStock.com/Mr_Fu

Earwigs are so-called because they were once (thankfully erroneously) thought to crawl inside people’s ears as they slept. Through association with someone whispering clandestinely into someone’s ear, in the late 18th century eavesdroppers and people who seeked to secretly influence others became known as earwiggers—and so to earwig is to do precisely that.

14. Pig

Cute pig leaning on railing of his cot
iStock.com/Fotosmurf03

Pig has been used to mean “to give birth” since as far back as the 15th century in English (a fairly uncomplimentary allusion to a pregnant sow delivering a litter of piglets). But slightly less depreciatively, the living habits of pigs mean that it can also be used to mean “to huddle together,” or else “to live or sleep in crowded or dirty conditions.”

15. Dingo

A dingo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

Because of their stereotypically sneaky behavior, to dingo on someone meant “to let down” or “to betray” them in 1930s Australian slang, while to dingo meant simply “to shirk” or “to back out of something at the last minute.”

This list first ran in 2016.

10 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history. 

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad, as well as the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain's childhood friend.

Twain said Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood playmate whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” he wrote in Autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." 

However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain admitted it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Twain seven years to write the book.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.

In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn. In August 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884. 

4. Like Huck, Twain changed his view of slavery.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up. 

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and housed Frederick Douglass.

5. Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. A PENIS DRAWING ALMOST RUINED THE BOOK.

Twain, who ran his own printing press, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants. 

According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.

7. Many consider Huckleberry Finn the first American novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." 

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote. 

8. The end of the book is often considered a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

9. The book is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachussets in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist.

In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offensive word with “slave.” Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with “hipster.” The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

10. Twain had some thoughts about the book's censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as librarian wrote Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply: 

DEAR SIR:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. 

If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

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