Friday, December 30, 2011

A Tale Of Two Nativities

We all know the Nativity Story.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Nice story, but can you tell me where this complete tale can be found in the Bible? This is a trick question, of course. This whole story does not exist in one place in the Bible. It is, rather, a harmonization of the only two accounts of Jesus' birth, given in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2. You probably knew this. But what you might not realize is how little the two accounts have in common. Let me illustrate. Here is the same passage, but now I've highlighted the text to indicate its source. Passages from Matthew are red, passages from Luke are blue, and overlapping story elements are purple and bolded.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Not very much in common at all. Why the difference? Well, the biggest reason is that Matthew and Luke were written for two different audiences. Luke tends to emphasize Jesus' holiness and his role as a servant. It is fitting, then, that Luke's Jesus would have a humble beginning: born in a barn and worshipped by shepherds. Luke traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Adam, and has him descended of David through his son Nathan. Matthew, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Jesus is attended by Kings. His persecution under Herod echoes that of Moses, further emphasized by his flight to Egypt. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage only as far back as Abraham, going through David's successor Solomon. Two distinct lineages, two distinct coherent narratives with contrasting themes.

This begs the question: is it even appropriate to harmonize the stories into one? Personally, I don't think so. Not only do they differ in narrative and tone, but there is one detail that could be read as a direct contradiction. The Magi visit Jesus in a house, but they visit him in Bethlehem, at a time when Jesus and Mary and Joseph were staying in a barn. See, in the Matthean account, there is no mention of Joseph and Mary leaving Galilee. When the narrative has the family return to Israel from Egypt in Matthew 2:22-23, it says that Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Judea (where Bethlehem is) and instead he withdrew to Galilee, to a town called Nazareth. The implication here, according to Matthew, was that Joseph and Mary already lived in Bethlehem. They only moved to Nazareth to avoid Herod's son. Whereas in the Lukan account, Joseph and Mary were Nazarenes who temporarily journeyed to Bethlehem for a census.

So how do we reconcile this? How did we end up with two disparate accounts of Jesus' birth? The key may be in their few similarities. In each story, we see that Jesus is a Nazarene, born in Bethlehem to a virgin who conceived through the Holy Spirit. That is the sum total of their similarities. It may be that those are the only details that the two authors had, and each constructed a birth narrative in keeping with their individual messages. The idea that someone could be from Nazareth and Bethlehem merits some explanation, so each author contrived a way for that to happen.

We certainly have no reason to accept the historicity of either account. There is no record of Luke's census conducted at that time or in that manner. Sending people to their home towns is a pretty ludicrous census-taking method anyway. Historically it makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to give Luke's Holy Servant a humble beginning. Likewise, there is no record of Herod the Great murdering Jewish babies (keep in mind that at this time the Hebrews were not slaves, but Roman subjects). Historically this makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to emphasize Jesus' connection to Judaism. Each author took the sparse details available and worked them into their unique depiction of Jesus' birth.

In a way, the tradition of harmonizing the Nativity into a single account is a bit of a tragedy. Luke's Jesus and Matthew's Jesus (to say nothing of Mark's or John's) are substantially different characters. When we try to blend them, we muddy the individual portraits, blurring the edges as a conceit to make the myriad appear whole. What does that get us? Three Wise Men in a barn--the idea is absurd, and it certainly isn't biblical. But most believers would rather have a single thematically incoherent narrative than a series of cohesive ones that disagree with each other about the unimportant details. At some point, the church decided that there is nothing to be learned from a story that can't be taken at absolute face value, and that is the truly great irony of fundamentalism. In the attempt to preserve the man, you distort the message. Perhaps it is better to think of the Nativity stories as parables. This didn't actually happen, but what can it teach us?

Just something to keep in mind next year when you sit down to watch your child's Christmas Pageant.

Happy Holidays,

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Case Against (Serialized) Self-Publishing

On two separate occasions, I've been in conversations with people interested in writing who suggested self-publishing a novel a chapter at a time as a way to make money quickly rather than try to sell it to a publisher. I remember thinking initially that this was a bad idea, but not really being able to articulate why. After some thinking, I found my articulations.

Nobody Wants to Read Text-Only Serialized Content

There are serialized content entertainment media out there, don't get me wrong. They consist of comic books, web-comics, web-series, and some television dramas. What do these have in common? They're all more-or-less fixed-length, they all have a substantial visual component, they all require a heavy investiture of time and effort to produce, and they're all designed in such a way that you can pick up anywhere. Books do none-of-the-above. Books don't have a "previously on" intro. Books are meant to be read from the beginning, and they have had such lasting appeal because you can use a book to tell a fantastical story for very little outlay. Consider the audience for books. Who really wants to wait a week or more to read the next chapter? Who really wants to start a book in the middle? How do you accommodate a reader like that? I don't want to make it sound like there have never been serialized novels, because that's simply untrue. Great Expectations was originally published as a weekly serial in a popular literary journal. How many people do you know with subscriptions to literary journals? How many magazines that publish fiction do you read? There's just no audience for it.

Writing a Serial Novel is Actually Harder Than Writing a Normal One

...at least if you care about quality. You can churn out pulp week after week, I suppose. You'd basically have to, because serialization forces you into constraints. You can't edit anything that you've previously published. Your chapters have to be a consistent length and should end with some kind of cliffhanger so the reader is clamoring for the next chapter. Since we're talking self-publication, you're going to be publishing digitally, which limits your readership. And as an avid ebook consumer, I can honestly say that nothing sounds like more of a hassle than trying to read an ebook via a subscription model.

Self-Publishing is a Poor Business Model If You Don't Write Web-Comics

First let's talk about the exceptions. The two that come to my mind are Scott Sigler (fiction) and Jonathan Coulton (music). Sigler offered his novels as a serialized audiobook for free via podcast. And if I remember correctly, he signed with a publisher as soon as he could. He started doing this before everybody-and-their-brother had a podcast, so he was able to capitalize on the wave of a new technology. Coulton offered a song a week for an entire year. He is the exception-that-proves-the-rule for music, but he's a lot more of an exception than people think. First of all, he's ridiculously talented. Second, he was fortunate enough to get his name attached to the breakaway surprise hit video game of 2007. In both of these cases, the creator made a rather large personal investment into the project and produced something with fairly decent production values that they then gave away for free. Neither of them has a particularly huge fan base (Coulton's isn't large, although it's certainly devoted). And those are the exceptional successes. The traditional publishing model gives you things you need: an editor, a marketing budget, a legal department with experience in keeping people from stealing your content, and a filter for consumers. It gets eyes on your product and guarantees a minimum standard of quality to buyers. But even if you could overcome that...

No One is Going to Pay You to Try Out Your Content

There's too much affordable, high-quality entertainment out there for people to fork over money to audition content from an unproven source. And if you're posting it on the web, people expect it to be free by default. And even then, what are the odds of it resonating? What bands do you listen to now that you discovered on MySpace? How often do you troll Amazon searching for something cheap in your favorite genre from an author you've never heard of?

I didn't think so.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Meh-ppets

Abby and I went to see the new Muppet movie. We may be the only two people in America who feel this way, but we were pretty underwhelmed by it. I should say that it isn't bad by any stretch. And despite Frank Oz's denunciation, The Muppets isn't a cynical cash-grab. It's everything you'd want from a Muppet movie, and very much in the spirit of the original television show and the first few movies. So why didn't it work for me?

The Story

A muppet named Walter, raised by humans and seemingly unaware of his muppetness, travels with his "brother" Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to see LA. Whilst there, they tour the Muppet Studios and find it about to be demolished. The only way to save it is to get the gang back together for one last show. Here's the problem: I don't care. Haven't we done two movies with roughly this premise already? It's been done. But you know what? I could even handle that if the new film were less saccharine or self-important. But the whole theme of the movie seems to be that the Muppets need to be saved because they're the Muppets and that's important to society, for some reason.

The Gags

This is actually one of the things that worked for me. Part of the mirth of the Muppets is how self-aware they are. The gags were frequently aimed just over the heads of younger viewers: Cee-Lo's Fuck You sung by chickens or Beaker singing "my libido" (as "me me me mo") in a Barbershop Quartet rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Occasionally the jokes are over-explained. Traveling by map is a pretty funny bit even without Fozzie saying "Hey, let's travel by map". The character "80's Robot" is pretty funny on its own without him explaining that he's offering Tab and New Coke (they're clearly visible on his tray). But in general, Muppet humor is the only thing that saves The Muppets from Muppet over-sweetness, and the jokes work best when they're stacked right on top of each other. Gonzo had a throw-away line about wireless toilets that I'm still laughing about.

The Cameos

If the camera lingered too long on New Coke jokes, it skipped far too quickly over the cameos. I barely recognized Dave Grohl as an imitation Animal. Mostly people just show up. Sara Silverman is a hostess at a diner, but all she does is show Amy Adams to a table (nothing like the legendary performance from Steve Martin in the original The Muppet Movie). For all the misses, there were a couple of magnificent hits. I'm looking at you Neil Patrick Harris and James Carville.

The Visuals

Puppetry is kind of an old-school special effect, so for me the mixture of puppets and CGI is actually a bit unnerving. In the spirit of the Star Wars re-hashes, the inconsistency is what's the most bizarre. If you're using CGI, why use puppets? Again, I realize I'm in the minority here, and nowhere is it written that you have to be all practical or all CGI. But the mix-and-match of non-realistic puppets with not-terribly-photo-realistic CGI... it really did not work for me.

The Non-Muppets

Jason Segel is fine, I guess. At no point did I ever like Amy Adams. I take it back, she had the funniest line of the movie (when Kermit initially decides not to attempt a reunion, Adams comments that "this is going to be a short movie"), but apart from that, she was a plot device. The only person in the main cast that seemed to be having any fun with his part was Chris Cooper as the bad guy, Tex Richman, but even his reading felt off. The humans weren't playing it straight, nor were they trying to match the Muppets in over-the-topness. In fact, the only human who really, truly sold his performance was--and I never thought I'd say this--Jack Black.

The Music

...was problematic for me. A big problem is that I have no love for Flight of the Concords. I respect them as artists, but their music doesn't work for me. But the music in the movie (much of it written by FotC) has too many FotC hallmarks in it. State absurd premise ("Am I a man or a muppet?"). Make absurd premise even more absurd without changing much ("If I'm a muppet, then I'm a manly, manly muppet"). Invert premise, because it's not like you're doing anything else with it ("If I'm a man, then I'm a muppet of a man"). Lather, rinse, repeat. Chris Cooper rapping was... well... an old white guy rapping. Why it fell apart here but worked so well in Tropic Thunder is anybody's guess, but I just couldn't enjoy it. When Amy Adams started off her song in the diner about being alone... I was waiting for someone to walk up and ask her why she was singing, because it's the Muppets and they're terribly self-aware. I felt so embarrassed for her during that song, because all the other patrons just kept eating and ignoring her. I get what they were going for, but it truly did not work. The only new song that really worked for me was Life's a Happy Song, and even that was only good-but-not-great. There was no The Rainbow Connection or I'm Going To Go Back There Someday or Movin' Right Along.

Of note: the one thing that I've heard complaints about is the use of Starship's We Built This City On Rock And Roll. I honestly wasn't bothered by that. It's very much in the spirit of the TV show. It's an awful song, but it's a montage, whatever.

The Inevitable Realization

I don't like the Muppets. Not just the movie, I don't care for them as an institution. This is, frankly, flooring to me. I remember thinking pretty highly of the TV, but it has not aged gracefully. Neither have the early films. I still love the post-modern awareness and I have some very fond memories, but with the possible exception of A Muppet Christmas Carol, I don't enjoy them. Nostalgia backfire. I has a sad.

So I'll just reiterate my earlier point. The Muppets isn't bad. It's probably a really great Muppet movie, but it's not a great movie, no matter what everyone else on the planet seems to be saying.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Things I Learned While Writing The Latest Thing I've Been Writing

So I haven't been writing much here lately, because I've been writing in other places. Namely, I've devoted around 75,000 words to the first draft of a book that I intend to submit for publication. Now that the draft is done, I've been re-reading it so I know what needs attacked for the second draft, but I thought it would be worth recounting some of the lessons I've learned.

Forget chapters. I learned during a previous project that numbering your chapters is the very last thing you should get around to doing, because you will add chapters in between, and if you're numbering manually, this creates a lot of extra work. This time, I spent so much time moving scenes around and having to deal with scene-specific chapter titles, that I'm amending my previous maxim. From now on, my outlines will be scenes, and I'll put them into chapters once I'm satisfied with the way they play. I'm tempted to say that I'll make exceptions for prologues and the like, but I doubt it. This draft has had three different prologues, as the story has grown in scope and it has become necessary to add scenes to the beginning.

Placeholders are awesome. When I was writing sci-fi, I would get stuck on introducing a character and having to find a name for that character. This time, the problem was MacGuffins. But I came up with something to call them knowing I could find/replace it out later and not lose my flow, and it kept me from getting "blocked" a number of times.

Have a good idea of where you're going before you get there. I started this story thinking it would be a short, intending to publish it as a Kindle Single (word length of 5,000 to 30,000). After about 10,000 words, I realized that this was going to be novel-length and began outlining accordingly, but my early chapters still have the jarringly brisk pacing of a short story. Long story short, I started this out based on an idea, figured out the story trajectory, and then outlined, and then wrote to the outline, but now everything I wrote up front is going to have to be heavily edited or completely re-written. I think if I'd taken more time to hammer out details before I started on narrative, or focused more on characters than on plot with those early writings, they would have been less wasteful. On the other hand, some of the more organic developments were quite satisfying.

Books are not films. I made the mistake of having a two-headed protagonist, rather than a protagonist and a foil. This is useful in movies where you have to communicate to the audience through dialogue, but this isn't necessary in a book because you have access to your perspective characters' thoughts. In films, the characters are assumed to know whatever the audience knows, but you can't get away with that in a book. Which means that any bit of information that one character discovered had to be communicated to the other, which necessitated a few "oh, this thing just happened" scenes. I'm making it work by putting more effort into differentiating the characters (which means hefty re-writing of early scenes, but what can you do?), but if I had to do it again, I'd have gotten rid of one of my protagonists. In future books, I'm splitting them up quickly so they each have their own storyline to hold up.

Have a real ending. I had an ending written and felt more or less unsatisfied with it because it was unrelenting in the way it set up for a sequel. So I ditched it, focused on the closure, let it be known that the bad guy was still alive, and left some questions open. But it ends, that's the important thing. Also, this way a followup book isn't beholden to the ending I write for this one, which means I have lots of time to change my mind about what happens in book two.

So, that's the debriefing. Incidentally, I'm going to need some eyes on this thing before I try to shop it around. I've already got a couple of alpha readers looking at it, but if you'd like to alpha-read (read as: "read a very rough draft") or beta-read ("read a slightly more polished draft"), send me an email.

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dear Pro-Family American

This little bit of ignorance showed up in my in-box the other day. I don't know how they got my email address (although I have a guess), but boy are they backing the wrong horse in soliciting me. I've copied the text in it's entirety below (links disabled), but some of my favorite parts are:

  • "[Homosexuals] ultimate dream is to create a new America based on sexual promiscuity"
  • "[The Student Non-Discrimination Act] will set them up to ram through their entire perverted vision"
  • "Because Public Advocates of the U.S. lobbies to Homosexual Lobby, contributions will not be tax deductible for IRS purposes"
My question is: does anyone actually buy this bullshit? I can understand pandering to homophobes, but this is so over-the-top it borders on self-parody. Enjoy.

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Public Advocate Banner
Dear Pro-family American,

The Radical Homosexuals infiltrating the United States Congress have a plan:

Indoctrinate an entire generation of American children with pro-homosexual propaganda and eliminate traditional values from American society.

Their ultimate dream is to create a new America based on sexual promiscuity in which the values you and I cherish are long forgotten.

I hate to admit it, but if they pass the deceptively named “Student Non-Discrimination Act,” (H.R. 998 & S. 555) that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Better named the “Homosexual Classrooms Act,” its chief advocate in Congress is Rep. Jared Polis, himself an open homosexual and radical activist.

And it's dangerously close to becoming the law of the land.

H.R. 998 already has 145 co-sponsors in the House!

And S. 555 already has 34 co-sponsors in the Senate!

That’s why I need you to act quickly -- right away -- to protect our nation’s youth.

I have prepared the official “Protect Our Children’s Innocence” Petition to Congress for you to sign.

Please click here to sign it right away so I can rush it to the Capitol with thousands more.




You and I must defeat this disastrous legislation.

You see, the Homosexual Classrooms Act contains a laundry list of anti-family provisions that will:
*** Require schools to teach appalling homosexual actsso “homosexual students” don’t feel “singled out” during already explicit sex-ed classes;
*** Spin impressionable students in a whirlwind of sexual confusion and misinformation, even peer pressure to “experiment” with the homosexual “lifestyle;”
*** Exempt homosexual students from punishment for propositioning, harassing, or even sexually assaulting their classmates, as part of their specially-protected right to “freedom of self-expression;”
*** Force private and even religious schools to teach a pro-homosexual curriculum and purge any reference to religion if a student claims it creates a “hostile learning environment” for homosexual students.
And that’s just the beginning of the Homosexual Lobby’s radical agenda.

In fact, it will set them up to ram through their entire perverted vision for a homosexual America.

My friend, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this is not a fight we can afford to lose.

That’s why Public Advocate is leading the fight against this immoral legislation.






This is a battle for the survival of American values and the fact is, there’s no time to waste.

The Homosexual Classrooms Act will turn America’s schools into indoctrination centers and its classrooms into social laboratories -- and they’re pulling out all the stops to pass it.

You see, they’ve disguised the bill’s wicked purpose behind an innocent name: “The Student Non-Discrimination Act.”

The Homosexual Lobby knows that if the public knew the truth about their radical agenda, they’ll have no hope of success.

And their dangerously close to ramming their perversity into law.

H.R. 998 already has 145 co-sponsors in the House!

And S. 555 already has 34 co-sponsors in the Senate!

You and I need to take action right now to stop the growing momentum of this disastrous legislation.

I’ve developed a massive program to launch the second they try to push this bill through -- mail, email, phones, and even radio and TV ads.

But that’s only possible with your support...

None of these things are cheap.  In fact, running a program of the size necessary to defeat this bill can get quite expensive especially with increases in postage and printing costs.

That’s why I need your generous contribution.  In addition to your signed “Protect Our Children’s Innocence” Petition, will youcontribute $250, $100, $50 or even just $35 right away.

And every dollar counts in this fight so even if you can only chip in $10 or $20, it will make a difference.






Unfortunately, this agenda is nothing new.

In fact, other countries like Britain are already experimenting with this kind of legislation, such as mandating public schools inject pro-homosexual content into every aspect of education.

Word problems in math classes are now to include homosexual characters.  History classes will document the “civil rights” struggle against the “oppressive” pro-family establishment.

And it’s even started to infiltrate our state governments.

In California, lawmakers want to “require schools to portray lesbians, homosexuals, transsexuals ... as positive role models to children in all public schools.”

Sexual deviants being held up as models of virtue?

If that makes you as sick as it makes me, you simply must join me in this battle for America’s children.

Please sign the “Protect Our Children’s Innocence” Petition to Congress and then send a generous contribution right away.  Your action will make all the difference.






And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you that action must be taken immediately, there’s more.

Many say that there will always be private schools and traditional homeschool families to teach traditional values to the next generation.

But the truth is, this radical agenda is NOT restricted to public schools.

Kevin Jennings, who Obama appointed as his “Safe Schools Czar,” has clearly stated that “every school, public, private or parochial has an obligation” to teach a pro-homosexual curriculum.

In fact, Jennings denounced school choice programs as “very dangerous” because they make it much harder to impose the Homosexual Agenda on our kids.

“Lord forbid a Baptist or Mormon school,” he added.

Jennings' ultimate goal is for all curriculum in “kindergarten, and first grade, and second grade – every grade” be infused with a pro-homosexual slant.

Traditional values will be squashed and demonized as old fashioned or out of date, or even as bigotry.

You and I cannot let them succeed.

Please sign the “Protect Our Children’s Innocence” Petition to Congress I’ve prepared for you right away.

And along with your petition, would you please send a generous contribution of $250, $100, $50 or even just $35.

And every dollar counts in this fight so even if you can only chip in $10 or $20, it will make a difference.

Thank you so much for all you have done.

Sincerely,

Eugene Delgaudio
President,
Public Advocate of the U.S.
P.S. Radical Homosexuals in Congress have a plan to indoctrinate our children in schools -- both public and private.

But Public Advocate is taking a stand.  Will you join me?

Please sign the “Protect Our Children’s Innocence” Petition to Congress I’ve enclosed.

And please, along with your petition, would you pleasesend a generous contribution of $250, $100, $50 or even just $35 right away?

And every dollar counts in this fight so even if you can only chip in $10 or $20, it will make a difference.










Because Public Advocate of the U.S. lobbies to
Homosexual Lobby, contributions are not tax deductible for IRS purposes.
This email was not produced or e-mailed at taxpayer expense.

Friday, September 9, 2011

5 Unlikely Lullabies

If you look at classic lullabies like Rockabye Baby or Hush, Little Baby, you see some commonalities. They are designed to be easily learned and easily sung. They have even, moderate tempos and simple, lilting melodies that occupy a very small sonic space. They have few rests so they can be sung without accompaniment. And their lyrics would likely traumatize any child that could understand them.

Well, when I'm trying to soothe my child to sleep, I don't want to rely on those old standards, so I've turned to a treasure trove of tunes that have virtually the same characteristics: 90's pop rock. Here are some of my favorites, evaluated for the lullabyability.

Disclaimer: I'm fully aware of the Rockabye Baby line of albums that have rocks songs (including classic and alternative rock) arranged as lullabies. I'd be lying if I said they weren't an inspiration. But, at the same time, those albums are completely instrumental, whereas I'm looking for candidates that can be sung a capella. So I don't feel like I'm stealing, is what I'm saying.


Radiohead - No Surprises


Music: Moderate tempo, sure, lilting melody, absolutely. It's a bit short once you lose the instrumental sections, but not too bad.

Lyrics: On its face it pretends to be a celebration of suburban banality. Absent context, the words a bit odd and disjointed, but pleasant enough.

Overall: It works, absolutely, but it's not much fun. Making pop songs into lullabies is an act of deconstruction, but this song is already thoroughly deconstructed. Hell, even the band refer to this as a lullaby. 5/10

Eric Clapton - Layla (Unplugged)



Music: This 1992 blues re-imagining of the blues-rock hit certainly lilts along leisurely. But the blues underpinnings make for lots of modulations, so it can be tricky to sing unaccompanied. Also, without the guitar breaks, it becomes a very short song.

Lyrics: Nothing objectionable, and in fact the second verse works on a lullaby level quite well: "Tried to give you consolation, your old man won't let you down. Like a fool, I fell in love with you. You turned my whole world upside-down."

Overall: Very workable, but only a 90's pop song by a thinly veiled stretch of the imagination. 7/10

Alice In Chains - No Excuses


Music: I have to jump down an octave for the chorus, and the verse gets a little higher than I'd like. Tempo's good, and it's an easy melody to remember (unlike every other AiC song, in which the melody takes some effort just to identify).

Lyrics: The imagery gets a bit dark, and true to 90's fashion, it's hard to figure out what the song is supposed to be about. Still, there's some great stuff in the last verse: "If we change, well, I love you anyway".

Overall: One of my favorite songs and it translates pretty cleanly. 8/10

Sublime - Santeria


Music: This one's fun and bouncy, with very few pauses between phrases. There are some vocal acrobatics for a pop song (well, for a male-sung pop song... well, for a male-sung pop-rock song) that get in the way, but nothing too serious.

Lyrics: There's some profanity and references to violence, which is either a pro or a con depending on your temperament. There's something truly wonderful about trying to hush a child with lines like "Daddy's got a new .45".

Overall: If you don't object to the content of the song, then it's great to sing. Especially in front of company. 9/10

REM - Losing My Religion






Music: Remember when Michael Stipe had hair? That was great. Anywho, this one is just about perfect. It's slow, it lilts, the vocal spectrum is compact and easy to sing. Also, absolutely everyone knows/loves this song.

Lyrics: Surprisingly apropos for an unrequited love song. The words are easy to remember and the chorus works nicely as a lullaby: "I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing".

Overall: If it's not perfect, I don't know what is. 10/10


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Monday, September 5, 2011

Business Convention Survival Guide

I'm freshly back from a four-day business trip to San Francisco attending the 9th Annual DreamForce conference. It was my first such conference, and I learned a lot about the product, and a lot about conferences. If you're planning to attend one in the near future, here are a few pointers:

Learn The Public Transit

BART is awesome if you're in the Bay Area and take the time to get to know its quirks. You can get from downtown to the airport for $8.10 in roughly the same time it would take a taxi to get there. The biggest challenge for me was that any subway stop will have five or six exits, so it's easy to get the right stop and emerge on the street not having any idea where you are. But you get the hang of it after a few trips.

Obviously this varies by city. St. Louis has crappy public transit. LA has buses that have to fight traffic along with the commuters and great subways that don't go anywhere worthwhile. Vegas is easy to get around in cabs and limos are frequently cheaper. I seem to recall some good things about Seattle, and I haven't had the pleasures of New York, but what I'm getting at is that a little research in this area can really pay off.

Unless You Actually Intend To Give Them Money, Ignore The Vagrants

Don't make eye contact, don't answer their questions, don't walk in time to their shitty music.

Anything Worth Attending Is Worth Arriving At Early

...this includes your flight, by the way. And the corollary: Anything worth leaving is worth leaving early. These two kind of go hand in hand because you'll want to arrive at sessions early so you can make sure you get an aisle seat so you can sneak out when the Q&A begins so you can arrive early to your next session.

Bring Diversions

You spend a lot of time waiting, due to the nature of conferences: drumming up as much hype as possible while trying to herd thousands of people around.

There Are No Available Outlets And Your Phone/Laptop Battery Sucks

Just be prepared. Or bring an iPad, since those things seem to last forever.

Don't Count On Doing Anything Touristy

...because your schedule is full. You(r company) paid good money to make sure it's full.

It's Okay To Call Home, But You Have Nothing To Talk About

...because if your significant other was the least bit interested in what you're learning, they'd have come with you. This is doubly true for tech conferences when one is married to a non-programmer. Just so you're aware.

There's Nothing On TV

...but it makes a hotel room feel less empty.

Specifically, There's Nothing On HBO

...unless you're a boxing fan. Which you're not.

All Catered Meals Suck A Little Bit

Cold breakfasts, boxed lunches, and then hors d'oeuvres for dinner. All of them are designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of palates, so none of them will be particularly memorable.

Not All Kool-Aid Is Created Equal, But It Is Still All Kool-Aid

Every product announcement gets treated like the second coming of Krishna. The conference is all about hype. Some of the products will be nearly as cool as advertised. Some will be cool for reasons totally different than advertised. And some will just be advertised. And of course, the one thing that is going to make a difference for you is going to be one detail buried in a product that does fifty things, forty-nine of which you don't care about.

Dress Appropriately

The obvious advice is to wear comfortable shoes, but double check the weather. It never even occurred to me that August in San Francisco might be jacket weather, but it totally is!

Leave Some Room In Your Suitcase

...because you will be getting shwag.

Just Because The Shwag Is Free, That Doesn't Mean You Won't Pay For It

...you can look forward to our email on Monday. Have a T-shirt you'll never wear!

When In Doubt Follow The Masses

They're all following someone who is following someone who is following someone who knows where you're going. Just find a group all wearing the same dorky laniard as you and stick with them.

Have Fun

...because you(r company) paid good money for this.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Meet The 2012 GOP Candidates

With the GOP presidential campaign in full swing, it's a good time to look at the front-runners in more detail. Who best represents the Republican voters? Who has the best chance of beating Obama in the general election? Let's take a look at the contenders!

Newt Gingrich
Campaign Slogan: "Yes I Can!"
Platform: To recapture that 90's magic
Pros: Led the Republican Revolution of 1994
Cons: Took a 12-year hiatus from politics to go on a shopping spree
Campaign song: Breakfast At Tiffany's by Deep Blue Something

John Huntsman
Campaign Slogan: "Someone You Know Has Heard of Me!"
Platform: IMAGE NOT AVAILABLE AT THIS RESOLUTION
Pros: Meets all necessary requirements to run for president
Cons: [citation needed]
Campaign song: Nowhere Man by The Beatles

Sarah Palin
Campaign Slogan: "Together We Can Show The World What Makes America--A Really Great Nation Nation That I Love And Whose Hardworking Real People Make It So Awesome--Such A Wonderful Place To Celebrate Life, Grow Business, And Exercise Our God-Given Freedoms, Don'cha Know!"
Platform: Is a thing you stand on, right?
Pros: Charismatic Tea-Party candidate, lock on the dirty-old-man demographic
Cons: Will resign in 2014 to pursue book deal and show on Fox News
Campaign song: Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon

Rick Perry
Campaign Slogan: "Because Fuck Science, That's Why!"
Platform: To rid America of domestic terrorism in the form of teachers, scientists, economists, and politicians
Pros: Straight-talking Texas governor with a proven track record on job-creation
Cons: Thinks America should secede from the EU
Campaign song: Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Mitt Romney
Campaign Slogan: "Klaatu Barada Nikto!"
Platform: All hail the mighty Xenu
Pros: Successful track record as governor of Massachusetts
Cons: Might be a liberal in disguise
Campaign song: Bitches Ain't Shit by Dr. Dre

Michele Bachman
Campaign Slogan: "Or Else It Gets The Hose Again!"
Platform: Find the Blue Fairy and someday become a real boy
Pros: Charismatic Tea-Party candidate, Googly-eyes have appeal with children
Cons: Born in the Uncanny Valley, citizenship in question
Campaign song: The Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tori Amos and Euro-American Cultural Differences

I think people underestimate the differences between American and European culture, and I think this difference is no better exemplified than in the videos for Tori Amos' Cornflake Girl. It's kind of an arty song to begin with, a piano-driven female-sung pop song in an era dominated by scruffy men with guitars.

The American Version

Take a look for yourself.

It's... well, pretty typical of 90's entertainment. 20-something women in trendy clothing (and remember that the post-new-wave-alt-grunge 90's look was very sort-of-bad-on-purpose). It's a girl-power thing on a sound stage that's supposed to look like a desert and/or deserted playground. Quick cuts, nothing that approaches a narrative, a stew made from a cowboy, and Tori inexplicably plays a piano solo on her chest around the 3:10 mark. She also mugs to the camera a lot. Like, a lot. My assumption is that the director would have rather cast Juliet Lewis, but was stuck with Tori (it being a Tori Amos video, after all) who nonetheless did her best to be accommodating.

The European Version

...is a freaking mind trip.

Tori Amos - Cornflake Girl by djoik

It opens with Tori sprawled on the floor, shot through a window and prominently featuring a mechanical bird. From there it morphs into an abstract impressionist film about a tornado that has sucked up flaming houses, eskimos, and a girl in ug-boots and a straight jacket who promptly gets caught in a spider web, and proceeds to get weirder from there.

It's definitely artsy. It's more than that, it looks like someone ate a bunch of symbolism and then shat imagery all over the film and set it to music. It is a garbled incomprehensible mess, but a slower, more deliberate incomprehensible mess.

The Moral of the Story

I don't know. Something about globalization. You figure it out.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dexter's Shifting Moral Center

This started with an off-hand remark on Facebook about the how Showtime series Dexter seemed to have lost its moral center in the fifth season. It blossomed into a discussion, and is now getting the full essay treatment. Massive spoilers ahead.

Seasons 1 - 4

Dexter is about the quintessential antihero--a serial killer trying to make the world a better place. To make the titular character work as a protagonist, the series relies on a sort of twisted morality by which an evil person can do good. Dexter is broken, sure, but the justice system is also broken, and he can satisfy his bloodlust while cleaning up after other people's mistakes. Now it may seem odd to talk about a show like Dexter as having a moral center, but really that's what the show's been about since Day One. The first season, in it's entirety, is about Dexter trying to reconcile the fact that he is a serial killer with his obligation to be a contributing member of society. This conflict ultimately externalizes with Dexter being forced to choose between his biological brother (a serial killer) and his adoptive sister (a cop).

Throughout, Dexter is defined by the way he straddles this line between needing to be a killer and wanting to be a normal person. Starting with Season 2, we see him start to wobble on this line. Now he has to choose what kind of relationship he wants to be in: Lila is the evil, Rita is the good. In Season 3, it's about friendship: Miguel is the evil, his old friends are the good. In each instance, he flirts with the evil, things get out of hand, and Dexter has to destroy the monster he helped create. Now it's worth noting that starting with Season 2, the series is no longer tied to any of the literary canon that guided the first season. And at that same point, the series began to make Dexter less and less of an antihero and more and more of a sympathetic hero. On the one hand, we see get to see new outward variations on Dexter's internal conflict. On the other, we've lost part of what made him so interesting: Dexter always new that he wasn't redeemable. But as long as he held onto his code, he could stay safe.

The apple cart got royally upset in Season 4, the strongest in the series in my opinion. Dexter has someone to study: the Trinity Killer, who somehow manages to balance being a husband and father with being a serial killer. He is the epitome of everything Dexter aspires to be: rather than walk the line between good and evil, Trinity embraces both. Dexter thinks he can do this as well, but as the season progresses, Dexter's delicately balanced illusion slowly disintegrates. The more he studies Trinity, the more we sees that Trinity is barely hanging on. He isn't, in fact, a loving father and husband, and he is unable to control his psychotic urges. But Dexter doesn't want to see that; instead, he continues to make compromises. Ultimately, he throws out the code, allowing the evil in him to run rampant. He actively disrupts the police investigation into the Trinity murders in order to kill the man himself, and Rita's death is a direct consequence of that action.

So, to recap, the moral center of the show had been that Dexter couldn't help being a monster, but as long as he followed his own rules, he could be a member of polite society. When he ignored the code, he was punished. If he had killed Trinity immediately rather than trying to study and emulate him, Rita would not have died. If he had let the investigation proceed unhindered, Trinity would have been captured, and Rita would not have died. The show stayed true to the clear, if twisted, morality that governs its antihero. And Dexter is violently reminded that he will never be normal. And now he knows it, and now he's saddled with a family that he doesn't have time for, but he can't get rid of them because he has to keep up appearances. The end of Season 4 set us up to explore a very dark place.

And then in Season 5 the writers were like "fuck it".

Season 5

Having now seen the entire fifth season, I can take some solace in knowing that Dexter ended up where he should have at the end of Season 4... more or less. But the moral tone shift (absent of consequence, no less) is astounding. Dexter kills a random dude in a bathroom and... well... nothing happens. It's totally forgotten about, except that the memory of his dead surrogate father gives him a big thumbs-up for showing some emotion. He throws out the code entirely, bringing in a protege, improvising kill rooms, leaving bodies around all willy-nilly. It would be one thing if we were following the fallout as he slowly reverted to the monster, but throughout the fifth season, Dexter becomes more and more of a sympathetic hero.

This is a problem. We can accept Dexter as a vigilante killer precisely because he's not a sympathetic hero! Rather, he's a force of nature, and we're lucky that he's on our side. But now, Dexter is just a guy, right? He's just trying to be a good dad, and stuff. But that means that when he kills, we can't root for him any longer. So the counterbalance that, the criminals Dexter is pursuing have committed acts of unspeakable horror.

So, this is the new moral center of the show: "Revenge is a-okay by us!" And it's not just the revenge killings. Dexter kills an ex-cop, a crime that will go unsolved because the guy was trying to turn in Dexter for committing murder--which is a totally justifiable thing for a normal person to do! Deb catches Dexter in the act of cleaning up after a kill, but she lets him go (without knowing who he is) because she knows that he was just killing for revenge after a particularly heinous crime. Familial problems? Those go away after a few episodes thanks to a super-nanny and grandparents. Dexter spends practically no time being a father, but he spends an awful lot of time being a B-movie action hero, killing haphazardly and for revenge. In fact, in the moment in the show that's supposed to demonstrate him being a good father to Aster, he does so by beating up her friend's step-father. Haphazardly. For revenge.

And, oh yeah, what about the Fuentes brothers? The season starts out with two Tony-Montana-caliber hoodlums, one of whom eventually gets killed. The other... is never mentioned again. He just evaporates.

I don't want to say that I didn't enjoy Season 5 at all, because I did. It's still a fairly smart show with compelling characters and a nice hook, but this season just wreaks of lazy writing. The moral center, whole character arcs, and an entire antagonist were lost in the shuffle while the creative team abandoned introspection for moxie. Considering the show's origins as a philosophical exploration of the nature and purpose of evil... I'm a little disappointed.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm A Horrible Father And That's Okay

I love babies and babies love me; this has been true since I was about ten years old. I've spent my entire adult life looking forward to fatherhood, and it's finally here in the form of my three-week-old son, Malcolm. So, how am I doing?

I'm effing miserable. Sort of. It's complicated. Let me explain.

My Son Doesn't Seem To Like Me Very Much

I love babies and babies love me, but it turns out that the babies that love me aren't newborns. I'm used to babies that can laugh and hold their heads up; newborns are potted plants that need to be watered and repotted every two hours. Mal doesn't interact. Hell, he can barely see and noises just startle him. He is physically incapable of smiling at something that he likes. This is the absolute best I can hope for: that the child will be distracted long enough to not hate life enough to scream about it. When he looks at me, I don't see recognition. When I joke and make goofy faces... I get a blank stare. He is completely unimpressed with me.

Perhaps he's figured out...

I Don't Seem To Like Him Very Much Either

Supposedly when a man has a child, it's the greatest feeling ever. I've heard this from many people, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a vicious lie. There was no instantaneous and overwhelming sense of love. In fact, when Mal was born I was beside myself wondering what was wrong because I had no feelings for him whatsoever. I was exhausted, yes, and my wife was a bit of a wreck so I was trying to help her. Thankfully after a day or so I started to get attached to the little guy, which may be because...

I Am Terrified Of Killing My Child

Funny story: last weekend I was visiting with some family and my sister was holding Mal while sitting in the dining room with our mother and some aunts and our grandmother and a cousin. Mal started to fuss and I ran in from the other room to take him. My sister looked up at me and reminded me that nearly every person at the table had given birth to a child and that I needed to calm the hell down. Which was true.

Oh, but it gets worse. I'm kind of a worrier already, but with Mal I find myself inventing things to fret about. Is he eating enough? Is he eating too much? Is he pooping regularly enough? Is he breathing right at this very second? Are his feet too cold? Is his scalp supposed to be that color? Is it a problem that one of his nipples seems to be larger than the other? I would have the pediatrician's emergency phone number memorized if I didn't constantly have my wife telling me that everything's fine and I need to calm the hell down and that I'm doing a good job, which she has to do regularly because...

I Really Suck At This

When Abby and I were planning the family, we always assumed that after she delivered the baby she would hand it off to me. See, my wife is a bit... surly. Even when she was pregnant, her maternal instinct was present, but it was running in a very low gear. But not me! Remember, I love babies and babies love me. Abby worried that she might not bond with the child, but I assured her that she'd be a great mother and I'd be a great father and it would all work out just great. And guess what? Abby's not just a great mother, she's an incredible mother. She's patient with the child in ways she's never been with anyone. And she's really good with him: she's running errands with him, doing laundry, washing dishes. She's doing the chores that I used to do, and all while taking care of a child. Hell, she's even lost all of her pregnancy weight already. I was totally right about her.

I was dead wrong about me. God help me I try, but I get so frustrated. I'm exasperated all the time, I can't soothe the child, I'm forgetting things, I'm shirking my chores. And then I feel guilty because Abby spends the entire day watching the kid and when she hands him off to me for the evening, I can't make him calm down and she has to take him back. I know that the first few months are survival mode, but I feel like I'm the only one struggling to survive. Seriously, there are days when I feel like my sole contribution to this family is my paycheck.

At least I have my hobbies, but not really because...

I Now Suck At Everything Else Too

I have many talents. I write music. I write stories. I write code. Not a whole lot of that has been happening lately. I've been writing music for the kid, and after three weeks I have a song and a half that I haven't memorized yet. I try to hammer out a chapter or two on some story idea in the evening, but I'm constantly losing my flow because I have to stop and feed the kid or change a diaper. My work has almost certainly been suffering. Hell, when a friend comes over, I can't even find anything to talk about other than the baby. I can't even have a beer and an intelligent conversation with my best friend because my brain is stuck in full-on baby mode. The only reason I've had time to read books is because you can hold a Kindle in one hand while feeding the baby in the other.

And it may never get better because...

There Is No Light At The End Of The Tunnel

This may be the hard part, but it's not like it ever gets easy. I still have teenagers to look forward to. Oh, and let's not forget whose son we're talking about here. Abby and I were both grade-school outcasts. My sister was cool. My brother was cool. I was never cool. God, when I think back about younger versions of myself... I was the kid who had emotional problems, who broke into tears on the bus because other kids teased him. I used to stay up nights crying to my mother about the stress of going to school the next day. If Mal turns out to be like me, I get to experience that bit of hell from the perspective of the impotent parent.

Also, I was kind of an annoying kid. The words that came out of my father's mouth most frequently were: "Stop trying to be funny all the time." I was that obnoxious. Remember the annoying kid in the first Might Ducks movie? The "swing batter batter kid"? This kid? He reminded people of me. People told me that I had to go see that movie so I could see the kid that reminded them of me, and he was that obnoxious little puke. So I can't wait to see how much Mal takes after his father.

So Is There Any Good News At All?

Sort of. It's complicated. Let me explain.

Apparently this is all fairly normal. Everybody's different, but apparently it's not that unusual for a new father to lose his mind. And my mind was only sort of tenuously there to begin with. Someday the baby will be the kind of baby that I can entertain and be entertained by. And then I can watch him while Abby super-mom's another newborn (because we are planning to have more than one). And I think there's a corollary to the Dunning-Kruger Effect going on. Maybe the reason I think I'm such a horrible parent is because I have some ridiculously high standards for what constitutes a decent one. Or something.

See, intellectually I know everything's fine, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm a failure as a parent. And then I get to feel guilty about that. Because honestly...

I Have No Excuse To Complain

We're doing great. The baby's fine. Abby's fine. We even still have a social life. We've gone to a dinner party, a family gathering, and a book club meeting, all in the last three weeks. We go out to dinner every once in a while--the child is actually quite good with cars and restaurants. We are in a very stable financial situation and I've got fabulous job security. Let's face it, Abby and I are model parents. If I were to complain about my plight to a random person on the street, that person would be utterly justified in punching me in the face.

Look. I thought I was mentally prepared for parenthood, and I totally wasn't. It's like thinking you're ready to go skydiving because you've gone diving before. I'm figuring this all out as I go, and apparently that's pretty normal as well. So, absent a frame of reference, I can only assume that people are telling me the truth about how I'm doing fine, and the baby's healthy, and everything will be okay. And if I take a few deep breaths, I can stop freaking out, take a look at my son... or a picture, and remind myself that he's here because I wanted him to be here, and that I'm happy with that decision, and that the madness will eventually pass... or at least it will dull a bit. I take a look at my parents, who had three kids and are now sane. Mostly sane. I remind myself that even though I was an annoying kid, since I became an adult my father and I have become rather good friends.

So, I have that to look forward to.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Kindle

This Christmas, I got a Kindle. And I love it. I did not expect to love it, but I really do.

First, there's the form factor. A Kindle is lighter than a paperback, it can be manipulated with only one hand, you can put it down without losing your place, and the line spacing and text sizes are totally configurable. Since a "page" on a Kindle contains less text than a "page"on a book, it's easier to find my spot and I get more of a sense of progress as I read. This is doubly true since I've been reading 800-1000 page fantasy tomes. And the battery lasts for a good long while, which is nice, and I can sync it to my phone, WHICH IS AWESOME. The long and the short of it is, I love reading, but I don't like books, and the Kindle nicely subverts that for me in a way that I had not anticipated.

There are lots of features that I don't care about included: background music and text-to-speech. And there are many titles I would love to read or re-read on Kindle that simply aren't there. Some authors eschew it altogether, some publishers price Kindle books above any of the other versions, which I take issue with. When you purchase an e-book, you're removing yourself from the secondary market, and some concession on price would be nice. You can't exactly re-sell it when you're done. But this is new tech, so I think the prices will trend down a bit. And some of the publishers are in line with this. A few titles I'd love to get around to reading are only $5 on Kindle, and that's a pretty good price-point for a non-new-release. Above $10 seems excessive, but I'd do it for the right book. Probably.

Although I must confess some reluctance to buying that first title. Despite the fact that I have Netflix and Steam and iTunes, I still feel weird buying something without getting a physical good. And I, in fact, didn't buy my first Kindle book, Evan gifted me The Great Hunt, which was the next WoT book I was going to read. And within the first hundred pages (or the Kindle equivalent), I was sold. And now, three or four books later, I'm almost-but-not-quite to the point of just not being willing to read physical books anymore.

There are some other downsides (aside from pricing). The page refresh is a little slow and does this negative flashy-thing that's a bit distracting at first, but it took very little time to stop noticing it. I could do with some easier-to-navigate menus. It has a "lend" function that feels a bit hobbled. But these are quibbles. I'm still figuring out the best way to keep my place across devices--it has bookmarks that sync, but you have to wrangle them manually through a menu (maybe there's a keyboard shortcut that I haven't discovered... that'd be nice). It will automatically sync to the farthest-read page, but that doesn't help you much if you're re-reading something or are referencing a glossary in the back.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how it compares to other devices. I've played with a Nook Color, and I didn't like it. It's quite heavy and it has a back-lit screen--I love the e-ink on the Kindle. I don't need a book to be in color, and I can't imagine the battery lasts any time at all. And it looks like a knock-off of an iPad. I played with a regular Nook a while ago, and I remember not being impressed, but I know lots of people that have it and love it. My big complaint was that the page-buttons weren't very responsive, but that might just have been because it was a store demo unit that had been abused by patrons. Some people have complained about the "openness" of the format. There's a valid argument to be made, but I really don't care. I buy all of my books from Amazon already. And, interestingly enough, the Kindle has changed the way I shop for books. I'm interested in far more titles than I'll ever get around to reading. Before, I would go ahead and buy many of them and they would sit on my shelf and not get read. Now, I just send the sample chapter to my device where I can forget about it until I decide I want to read something new.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this as times goes on, but this post has gotten long enough. Happy reading.

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