Episode 242 – Making the world shut up with Uri Bram

‘With a book you’re not just paying for the pages you read, you’re paying for someone to make the rest of the world shut up for a minute while you can concentrate.’

Uri BramUri Bram knows a thing or two about the value of content and attention. He curates the internet, after all, as the publisher of The Browser and The Listener (‘the absolute dream job’).

He’s also the author of Thinking Statistically, a self-published surprise bestseller (and noone was more surprised than Uri…)

In this conversation we discuss why statistical literacy matters more than ever, why less is more valuable than more, and why books keep us sane in a world of infinite distraction.

Shut up, world: I’m reading. 


LINKS:

Uri’s site: https://uribram.com/

The Browser: https://thebrowser.com/

Uri on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/UriBram

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

Rob Hatch’s PI-Q webinar on personal systems for productivity: https://youtu.be/rhB1z33HIPA

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Uri Bram, who is the publisher of The Browser, The Listener and The Viewer, the internet’s finest curation recommendation newsletters, helping you savour the best of the internet without suffering through the rest of the internet. He’s the author of Thinking Statistically, an accessible introduction to the biggest ideas in statistics, which has been used as a course companion at leading universities throughout the world and was named by New York Times bestselling business author Josh Kaufman as one of the 99 best business books ever written.

Which is quite something isn’t it, Uri?

Uri Bram: I was very, very flattered by that. Yes.

Alison Jones: And he’s got a point I have to say.  I was going to say, it’s the only statistics book I’ve ever read at a single sitting,  it is frankly, the only statistics book I’ve ever read, and I really enjoyed it. So I mean, amazing.

Uri Bram: It’s shocking how many of the people who read it start by telling me ‘I hate statistics.’ Like, ‘Oh, it’s the worst thing, but thanks for your book, I really liked it.’ That’s always a really funny one.

Alison Jones: I did laugh as well when I saw it was being used as a course book. Because I’ll bet that was the furthest thing from your mind when you wrote it.

Uri Bram: Absolutely. Yes, it really was. It’s a slightly strange story,  I wrote the book right after I finished university, kind of the summer after, and I was basically just embarrassed that I didn’t have a job. It was that time in life where like everyone else was doing things and I thought, Oh my goodness, I’m useless.

I didn’t manage to get a job. And so I basically started writing a book just so that I could tell my friends I was doing something, you know, it was slightly less embarrassing than being like, Oh, I’m just sitting on the couch, sorry. So, yes,  at the time. I really didn’t imagine anything, but it’s been wonderful to see it go out in the world.

And, yes, like as a very short, fun book, I did not think it would do well in universities, but it turns out, you know, obviously a lot of students find the textbooks a bit dry and find that they’re missing some of the conceptual pointers that hopefully I’m able to provide.

Alison Jones: And I’ll bet it’s some of the staff that are reading it with new eyes as well, actually.

Uri Bram: Secretly under the table. Yes. And I’ll just get a quick refresher. Yes.

Alison Jones: But I think it’s interesting, we talk quite a lot about financial literacy, well, financial illiteracy in the world, becuase it’s not something that is particularly taught at school, but statistical literacy is just as bad, isn’t it?

Uri Bram: It really is. And I mean if the current news environment is telling us anything, it’s that statistics really matters. You know,  these ideas are like very applicable to things that matter to all of us every day.

Alison Jones: And particularly so at the moment, obviously we’re recording this in October 2020. The COVID pandemic is raging, we are all quite bored of it now, but here it is. And we’re looking at figures on a daily basis in a way that most of us never have before. And it’s really hard to interpret them if you don’t understand the fundamental concepts behind them.

Uri Bram: Yes, that’s right. I think to me the mistake that a lot of, and obviously it’s easy to criticize, but the mistake that I think a lot of the universities and so on do when teaching statistics, is they try and teach you the techniques without really teaching you the concepts. And to me, the concepts and the big ideas of statistics and just having that impressionistic idea of how to apply statistical thinking, whether it’s to numbers in the newspaper, but even applying it to more abstract topics and applying statistical thinking to non-numerical topics. I think that’s the really useful bit and the core of the thing, and that if you’re able to do that, you can interpret, whether it’s COVID stats, presidential polling, or even just like the general flow of information that is constantly pouring over all of us these days.

Alison Jones: Yes. And even just, as you say, having a grasp of those concepts, I mean, I now understand Bayesian statistics, well, I say understand it. I couldn’t explain it to somebody, but I sort of understand it well enough. And I love that you take that approach in the book that, you know, if, as long as you’ve got it ‘kind of’, as in back of a fag packet things, then that’s better than nothing.

But once you have that, you just feel that much more, critical, I suppose, in a good way. You can assess the stuff that’s coming at you more critically, you’re better equipped to do it. And as you say, you don’t have to be able to show your working and come up with an actual figure, but you’ve just got a sense of what biases could be in there and the selection of the sample and what other contingent dependencies are there and so on.

Yes, I feel I really learned a huge amount from a very short amount of time with the book, which I don’t always say, I have to say.

Uri Bram: Oh, well, I’m so glad to hear that. That is always the greatest compliment. And it’s such an interesting thing with business books, right? How some of them feel like they’re repeating the same idea 10 times. And I always said and I think my book gets a bit of criticism for being too short. And, you definitely get some of those reviewers who are like, well this wasn’t worth this many pounds because it was only 70 pages. But I’ve always thought you’re spending your time and your money on books. And if someone can boil things down to their essence, to me that’s just better. Like I wish most books could be read in two hours. That would be the sweet spot for me.

Alison Jones: I think that’s really true of business books. One of my mantras is ‘nobody ever said I wish this business book had been longer’, clearly interestingly people do because there is a kind of, you know, I just paid this amount of money, I expect this amount of pages. But actually you’re paying… it’s like paying for the plumber to come around and spend five minutes tapping the exact right point on the pipe to make everything work. That’s what you’re paying for. You don’t want anybody there for a day to make you feel you’ve got your money’s worth. You just want it working.

Uri Bram: Right. It’s interesting psychologically that, you know, I think we take this idea from normal life. So if you buy some potatoes, you would expect to pay half as much for half as many potatoes, but I kind of think that for a book you should pay twice as much for half as much book, if that is because someone has saved you a bunch of time, there’s something quite strange there.

And I don’t think our brains have quite caught up to this new world.

Alison Jones: No, the economy of ideas works on different principles, doesn’t it?

Uri Bram: Yes.

Alison Jones: It’s really interesting. There’s that wonderful quote – was it Charles Lamb? – who said, I’m sorry this letter’s so long, I hadn’t the time to make it shorter.

Uri Bram: Yes, I love that.

Alison Jones: Yes. And the thing that you do about saving people time, I want to come onto how you write in the book in a minute, because that is really interesting. And I want to just probe it a little bit more, but I just wanted to touch as well, with your other hat on, as curator of the internet, that’s a pretty big job title.

I mean, that’s kind of the same principle, isn’t it? It’s like, look at this stuff and then you don’t need to waste your time on the rest.

Uri Bram: It’s one of those ones where I feel like I have the absolute dream job now. So I run this curation website called the Browser. And every day we read hundreds or thousands of articles and we pick our favorite five. We sometimes say the best five, but honestly it’s such a subjective thing that it’s just like five interesting articles

Alison Jones: That I like right now.

Uri Bram: Yes, this is what we enjoyed, and super eclectic and super unrelated to the news. And we just pick writing which we think is of lasting value. So that will be just as interesting 10 years from now that it is today. Yes, I do really feel like the luckiest person in the world. It’s just an amazing job and an amazing thing, but it’s also overwhelming. You know, there is so much nonsense on the internet and we sift through it in the hopes that we can save our readers all that time. That we can bring them only things that are, you know, obviously not every piece is interesting to every person, but at least things that are definitely high quality and that you don’t have to worry, you know, this might turn into junk.

Alison Jones: Because most of the content on the internet is agenda-driven at some point, isn’t it?

Uri Bram: Yes, it really is and you know, I’m afraid I have participated in that at some point, I spent some time writing online and, you do feel yourself kind of pulled by those incentives to write things that maybe you don’t entirely believe or phrase them in a way that is like more incendiary. It does feel like everyone online has an agenda, and I guess that’s one of the great things about books is the way they are slower, more deliberate, you know, it feels like ideally a well-edited book is something where someone has decided, this is really the core of this thing. And I’ve spent the time and effort and money and design and all these things in order to package it, you know, instead of, every day churning out something new.

Alison Jones: And also the motive behind it is fairly up front, isn’t it? You know, here’s the book and you give money for it and that’s the transaction. But when you’re not paying for content on the internet, then other things are being transacted, kind of under the waterline, aren’t they? Your attention…

Uri Bram: Absolutely. Yeah.

Alison Jones: …and your opinion. Yes, I think not many people recognize the cost of free

Uri Bram: It’s true. But again there’s something primal about it. Something like, you know, when sometimes when people are giving out free food, I’m not even hungry, I just have to take it. Like, it’s just so hard to train your brain that no, just because it’s free it doesn’t mean you need to have it.

But yes, and also just recognizing, right? Like if someone’s giving it for free, it’s that famous quote, if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. I really feel that these days online,

Alison Jones: Yes, really interesting. And I think it’s possibly why books have done as well as they have. You know, who thought people would still be paying for content in 2020? It’s really interesting.

Uri Bram: Yes.

Alison Jones: And they’re packaged well. The internet is a very unwieldy thing, isn’t it?

Uri Bram: There’s something really interesting about Kindle books, right? Where you’re effectively paying for digital writing that you read on a device. And some of us are even reading, you know, a website on one device and the Kindle book on the same device. And it’s mad that it feels completely natural to pay 10 pounds for a Kindle book, where people are really reluctant to spend $5 a month on a digital subscription, but maybe that makes sense…

Alison Jones: Why do you think that is?

Uri Bram: I don’t know. I sometimes think we’ve just, I think inertia is a really strong force, so I think we’ve been trained historically, you know, this is how much a book costs. I buy books and therefore I’ve continued to buy books. I think it might partly be just that we like that attention, you know, the thing we’re really paying for is to make everything else go away.

Like with a book you’re not just paying for the pages you read, you’re paying for someone to make the rest of the world shut up for a minute while you can concentrate. That might be it. Do you have thoughts? Do you have theories?

Alison Jones: I love that phrase; I just want the rest of the world to just shut up. You’re right. There’s the deep work thing. I think there’s something about boundaries. There’s something coherent, entire and finished. When you have finished a book, you’ve finished the book, you know, and there’s still something really satisfying about that. So I think the way that a book bounds a subject, as we were saying right back at the beginning is actually really valuable.

And even if we don’t express it that way, I think we feel it. We feel the value of it. And there’s a sort of neurological reward when you get to the end of it. And, it doesn’t demand anything of you beyond that.

Uri Bram: Hmm, absolutely. Yeah.

Alison Jones: But let’s talk about the writing because you have such a friendly style. Right from the beginning, you sort of think, Oh, this is somebody I can go and have a drink with, you know, how conscious was that?

Uri Bram: It was somewhat conscious and somewhat accidental. I was sort of 21 I suppose when I wrote this book and I really did intend it. I mean, I think sometimes people say this,  not entirely honestly, but I genuinely thought 10 of my friends would read it. I was writing this book. I was going to self publish it on Kindle.

And I thought, you know, 10 friends might read it and that would be the end of it. So I imagine that I was writing partly in that friendly voice because I was literally writing to my friends, but I also feel philosophically, you know, that why should a book not have that kind of friendly tone? And I mean, it can get grating.

Like there are definitely, you know, there’s definitely a point at which the friendly tone just becomes slightly annoying when books are kind of being overly familiar and perhaps for some,  I’m sure that some readers felt that way about mine, but, you know, I think there’s just something about keeping people engaged and keeping people, you know, if you’re writing about statistics, which honestly most people do not like, you really need something in the book that keeps people going. And if that is a series of, somewhat pathetic, but hopefully funny jokes and, bizarre scenarios and strange examples and a really friendly, personal tone, why not?

Alison Jones: And it gets beautifully meta at a couple of points as well, which I really enjoyed. I think that’s hilarious, that is friendly because you’re writing to your friends. I mean, it doesn’t get any simpler than that. I mean, most people possibly don’t have quite the same starting point, but actually it’s perfectly possible to imagine a friendly face in front of you as you write, isn’t it? That makes all the difference.

Uri Bram: Yes, it really is and it’s also, I think we learn better in person. Like if I hear a fact or a story from a friend, that’s obviously going to stick in my mind much more than if I just read it on the internet somewhere. And it feels like in some ways you could try and hack that with your business writing voice.

And if your business writing voice is personable enough that people actually feel like they’re speaking to a person. I imagine that also somehow, you know, in some quasi scientific neurological way makes the information in the book, stick more.

Alison Jones: We’re not getting into much of the detail here, but I think you’re right, because it’s engaging. I suppose it’s engaging emotion, isn’t it? Which is where we lay down memory and where we engage and pay attention. And, yes, really interesting though. If any neuroscientists are listening, then I’m really, really sorry about how woolly we’re being here but we’re sure that there is some neuroscience behind this.

Uri Bram: Absolutely, a hundred percent. I just think that’s something that not all writers think about enough is the way that you could tell the same, you know, like a lot of books are obviously built on these anecdotes or stories. You tell a little story and that is there to illustrate an idea.

I don’t think all writers think enough about the difference between phrasing that story in like first person, second person or third person.  You can get a really different effect and you can somehow kind of create this other ‘us and them’. Sometimes in the book, I’m kind of laughing at myself, but implicitly I’m therefore making the reader feel smart.

You know, like I did this silly thing, you obviously spotted this silly thing that I did, and you’re almost training people to think, Oh, well, I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t do the silly thing that this silly author did. Therefore, I think that does kind of psychologically help the material really, yeah, it’s kind of convincing in a way.

Alison Jones: That’s very smart, and it’s sort of the pratfall thing, isn’t it? Because you’ve demonstrated actually you know what you’re talking about actually makes you much more relatable when you admit to a mistake of your own, it’s really fascinating. And I think you’re dead right, that most business book authors think 80% about content and 20% about style. You know, the what, rather than the how, and getting that closer to 50/50 would would benefit everybody, wouldn’t it?

Uri Bram: Yes. Yes.

Alison Jones: This is the craft of writing that, if you’re not a writer, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Uri Bram: Yeah, I am. I think I’m preaching to the choir here, but, just the role of editors is so important and they kind of often go

Alison Jones: Yes. Yes. Let’s talk about that for the next half hour, shall we?

Tell us about your experience with your editor.

Uri Bram: Well, so again, this was a very strange book, this first one, cause I really did write it on my own. It was just when Kindle had launched the possibility of other people publishing on the platform. So, at the time it was like quite a technical challenge to do it. And so not many people had done it, but I was just basically doing this myself on the fly.

And so I had a series of my friends edit it and that is obviously a nerve-wracking experience, because it does feel very personal and a lot of people give you very conflicting advice and trying to figure out which advice actually helps and which doesn’t.

Also just realizing that there’s like 10 different equally excellent books in the same general area, and you can only write one of them. So some people are trying to guide you towards one or the other options, but you, at some point have to say, no, this is the book that I want to write, and this is how it’s going to be. And then just pride really gets in the way.

I mean, I think every time that someone says, Oh, this didn’t really make sense. It’s just really hard for me to internalize that. I’m afraid I kind of have this instinctive reaction of no you’re wrong, you must be misunderstanding. But to then step back and say, no, they’re not wrong. If it’s not clear then it’s not clear, that’s always really hard.

Alison Jones: And actually the maturity in that is just incredible that you wrote it at the age that you did, because the assurance of the voice and the kind of emotional maturity of being able to handle that for you….that probably sound horribly patronizing, but actually, you know, it takes most of us in decades to get there…

Uri Bram: That’s really nice, I would say another thing that really strikes me, so this book is quite modular, which made it much easier to write. So, most of the sections, I mean, they do relate to each other, but it isn’t a single arc in a single book where I’m building, each chapter builds on the next. That made it easier for people to edit it certainly because each piece stood alone. But it also meant, you know, I think it’s got its limitations. And I mean, in general, if I was doing this again now, I would love to have a professional, proper editor looking at the whole thing, but I think that would be even more important for a book with a single arc versus like a modular book where each section kind of stands alone.

I think the kind of ad hoc friend editing I had at the time was lovely. And I thank you to all my firends if any of them are listening. But, yes, it would not have worked to like create the arc of the book in the way that I think my absolute favourite books feel really coherent and cohesive start to finish, and like they’re telling a story.

Alison Jones: But you know what? You’ve got time to write a few more. Come back and we’ll talk about those.

Uri Bram: Looking forward to it.

Alison Jones: In the end though, a few more than 11 of your mates did read this book, didn’t they? Tell us what happened.

Uri Bram: Yeah. I mean, so Josh Kaufman  who wrote The Personal MBA, which is obviously a phenomenally successful and really helpful book, he was kind of, I don’t know how he discovered it, but he decided that this was a book that he was going to recommend to all his readers. And I think that really helped a lot.

And the book really took off from there.

It is always interesting to see your books out in the world and to realize that you don’t always know  how people discovered it or where they’re coming from, or why suddenly there’s this new influx of readers. But it just seems to have taken off somehow I think it answered a certain question or it was filling a gap that existed at the time.

Alison Jones: The word of mouth and the influencer thing is so key, isn’t it, for a book like this?

Uri Bram: It really was,  I made all kinds of mistakes of course, that I wish I could go back and do differently. And, I definitely wish that at the time I was more proactive. I think at the time I was so shocked that the thing was happening, that I didn’t make the efforts that I could have to share the book of my own accord.

So, yeah, I don’t know whether in this case, I’m a good example or a cautionary tale, but I lacked a deliberate strategy. The things that happened seem to happen on their own.

Alison Jones: You got lucky. So tell me about the publishing journey.

Uri Bram: So it just sort of came together by itself, I suppose. I wrote it, I sort of decided I was going to write this book, and I started working on the manuscript,  like I said, I self published it on Kindle, right when that first became possible. Which definitely helped because most people reading didn’t realize that that was a thing that existed.

So at the time, if something was on Kindle people assumed that it was a professionally published book, and not a young person in pyjamas, desperately typing on his laptop. And yes, as the book got more popular, I obviously started getting offers from professional publishing houses, and agents and sort of took things from there.

An interesting part of it was getting offers for translation rights. I think once a book succeeds in English, there are these translation houses and publishers in other countries. So Korea and Japan were the two main ones who I heard from the most who started reaching out and asking can we publish this book? .

Alison Jones: Of course, most publishers have a rights department, but if you self publish a book on Kindle, you’re going to go what should I charge? How does this work?

Uri Bram: Yes. It was a strange one. I’m a big believer in negotiating things. So I kind of assumed whatever someone offers me, I should negotiate it upwards slightly. That was another moment where I thought, Hey, if I was more professional,  it would be very nice to have someone who knows how this works and has done it before.

Alison Jones: I’m so sorry, but I’ve just imagined all these people just throwing things at their listening devices. So basically he never really meant to publish a book, didn’t have a plan for marketing, and this is not really teaching us anything.

So let’s give them something Uri. What’s your best tip for a first time writer? I mean, you’ve already given us quite a lot and being a bit greedy, but them something they can hang on to.

Uri Bram: Absolutely. So I think there’s obviously many, many different ways to write a great book, but the thing that worked for me in terms of the concept was instead of thinking, Oh, what’s something I want to tell the world, it was more a feeling of like deep frustration, like, I cannot believe that this thing is not better known.

I can’t believe that people don’t know this. It’s so annoying that this thing is taught like this. It was that feeling of Oh, this is so, how is it possible that this thing exists like this? That was the feeling that I felt like I harnessed with this book. And I think often that is a great way to identify a gap that you can fill. When there’s something that you know so strongly and feel so strongly about that, you’re just like, Oh, it’s ridiculous that this isn’t already well-known.

Alison Jones: It’s a great prompt because it means clearly there’s something wrong in the world and you can fix it. The temptation  there is to go off on a rant. So you managed to avoid that. There’s an awful lot of books have come from that place of frustration and ended up basically just as a sort of exercise in catharsis for the author rather than exercise and instruction for the reader.

That’s that is a great tip. So do you now just sort of go through the world, looking for that nudge?

Uri Bram: Okay. I don’t go looking for it, but when it hits me, that’s when I know. Okay. This is worth thinking about it. This is worth maybe turning into a book. I’d say my other big tip is, I got super lucky and I’m really aware that I did, and that it would have probably been better. It would have been better to be more deliberate.

And, but one thing that I think I did get right was to be very early on some new frontier. So in this case, getting out on Kindle, right when Kindle first came out, obviously at this point it would have to be something different. but just the power of being like quite early to a new platform or technology or whatever it might be, that just lets you, I mean, I guess lets you get away with the kind of luck that I had because, you know, there aren’t already a thousand other people doing it.

Alison Jones: Yes. It’s finding a space where you can stand out, and they come and go don’t they?

Uri Bram: Yes. And that’s the thing, you know, you kind of have to be somewhere. You have to spot the opportunities that someone else hasn’t, but when you do, you know, you’ve just got these incredible opportunities to grow really, really fast and reach people you wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

Alison Jones: Yes, that’s a great tip, or two tips. Thank you. Brilliant. I always ask people for a recommendation as well. I mean, I say a business book, but the recommendation doesn’t have to be a business book, but just a book that has kind of stayed with you and you think that it would be a good thing if people listening to the podcast were to read it.

Uri Bram: I was incredibly nervous to think about this because you obviously you have read every business book, so it just feels like, Oh,

Alison Jones: Absolutely. every one

Uri Bram: That’s what I’ve heard. Yes. I really enjoyed the book Impro by Keith Johnstone. It is technically a book about improv theater but it’s actually a book about creativity and unblocking yourself.

And for obvious reasons, I think those can be incredibly useful for any business writer.

Alison Jones: Oh, brilliant. I’m a huge fan of improv, but I don’t know that book. And  we’ve had a couple of improv people on the podcast.  Yeah, no, because actually, and it changed the way I do the podcast as well. I no longer have a script.

Yeah, I think that the principles of improv and the energy of it are massively helpful in creative thinking.

And yeah. And I don’t know, relationships generally and collaboration generally in a kind of an uncertain space. Yeah. Oh, that’s great recommendation. Thank you. No, it’s actually humiliating how often I haven’t read the books that somebody recommends.

So many books so  little time, but thank you. I shall go and I’ll seek that one out.

Excellent.

 Uri Bram: s Peter Drucker still being read. Does he get recommends a lot? Cause he’s the management theorist who most influenced me.

Alison Jones: He has never been recommended and Harvard Business Review have just brought out a new collection of his essays and I recommended it in my, kind of, you know, upcoming books thing. But I think there’s a sense that Drucker is somehow passeé, but actually he was so far ahead of his time that he’s still ahead of the curve.

Uri Bram: Oh my goodness. Yes. Okay. Peter Drucker on the Profession of Management,  I’ve just given you two things again. I’ve just, can’t control. Peter Drucker really shaped me and I think he just gets to the essence of things in a way that I think so many people are vapid and vague, like so many writers say something where you’re just like, Oh, well, how would I apply this?

But somehow he manages to say these things that are quite general, but which really you can actually apply in your work and in your business. And that is an incredible, yeah. What an incredible thinker.

Alison Jones: Yes. Do you know, that’s a great point. Don’t just read Drucker for his ideas, which are brilliant. Read him for his style because you can learn a lot. And I think, you know, as people writing business books, reading good writers of business books is a really, really valuable thing to do. You should definitely read Uri’s and you should find out about his style and it’s, yeah, it’s very successful the way you’ve done it.

So I think that people could learn a lot from that as well as learning about Bayesian theory. So what’s not to love.

Uri Bram: Really appreciate that.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. So if people want to find out more about you Uri and more about the internet, your whole take on it, where should they go?

Uri Bram: Great. Well, my personal webpage is Uribram.com and that has links to all my books and writing, but the main place I spend my days these days is The Browser, which is just thebrowser.com. And as you said, that’s where I hope your new homepage for the internet.

Alison Jones: Wonderful. So much fun talking to you Uri, and you really, really thoughtful reflections there on your own journey and the things you did wrong and, but also hugely valuable tips on getting it right. So thank you very much.

Uri Bram: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

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