Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Map That Changed the World: William Smith & the Birth of Modern Geology- by Simon Winchester

Map That Changed the World: William Smith & the Birth of Modern GeologyMap That Changed the World: William Smith & the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had two geology classes this summer that were field courses. As I went on them I decided it was probably time to re-read a couple of my favorite historical geology texts: The Map That Changed the World & The Seashell on the Mountaintop. In the end I only had time to listen to the first one. It also happens to be that this book was one of the first nonfiction books I ever listened to on CD because my home library had it on display and the title caught my attention. It is also certainly the first science nonfiction book that I listened to. In fact, without reading the cover, I assumed it would be about cartography or history rather than geology. The geology connection only made it more enjoyable to me.

There was a lot about this story that I had forgotten over time. One thing that jumped out at me was how long William Smith had financially troubles and yet what a short time he actually spent in debtors prison. Part of this confusion came from the book not being totally chronological order. Still it is a great fascinating tale about one man's lifelong obsession to undertake a project that left him financially ruined. Despite his work having such a major impact on the world it is a shame that the man has been nearly forgotten. Fortunately, Simon Winchester has done a great job retelling this man's life story- allowing him to be praised and remembered for his contribution to science and geology.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens

Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the HeavensChasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was very excited to read this science book, but it was very dry. It was hard to listen to because there were so many names, dates, and places. It would have been nice to have a calendar and a map along with the book. It was a very thorough and detailed account of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus. The history was more detailed than a webpage I stumbled across earlier this year, but not much more entertaining. The importance of the transits was explained, and you felt heartbroken for the astronomers when bad weather or broken equipment got in the way. It was awesome to see and hear about the cooperation that existed between astronomers at the time, even if they weren't totally trusting of one another or withheld data from one another in the end. The book also made me appreciate that I was able to see on of the two transits, 2012, that occurred in my lifetime since there is such a long gap between them, but unfortunately I think there were too many details for me to consider teaching from it or to read it again.

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: Ready Player One- by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel I should explain my history with this book before I actually review it. My cousin [OK, my wife's cousin's husband, who is also an elementary teacher] works at a bookstore and got a pre-release copy of this book. At the time, he was finishing up his Master's degree, working a full-time and part-time job, and reading other books so he passed it on to me thinking I might enjoy it. I was not as busy as he was, but I am a slow reader and prefer to listen to books and I put it off for a while, but had it sitting on the shelf of my classroom. Eventually a high school student of mine picked it up and loved it. I decided at that point, since the book had been released for real, that it would be OK to donate the book to my school's library. The librarian later told me that the book was never on the shelf and the student who read it first told me that he read it multiple times. I decided in the end that I should give it a shot and since I managed to find it on audio, and especially since the audiobook was read by Wil Wheaton. Lastly, I did hear that it was being turned into a movie.

I ended up listening to the book while on vacation and most of it while coming home from vacation. The book produced in me a nostalgia for old video games and the desire to have been immersed in that culture during the age of Atari and just a little before my time. This was somewhat reminiscent of when I read Console Wars which was more of my era of video games. Despite not being able to fully relate to the book, I did enjoy it. I have not made light of my disdain of dystopian novels. However, this one did not annoy me as much as many others have. I think that is in part because a lot of it took place in a virtual world and by the end of the virtual conflict (view spoiler).
Having said that with as much as the timeline drug out in the novel there were then times where things seemed to get solved way too quickly. Also, the book was of course more than just a story, and I was startled and put-off by the number of agendas that this book was trying to push on youth. I am not opposed to these messages necessarily, but even so I kind of was offended by how vehemently the messages were thrust on me, especially since I'm not sure a young adult would pick up on this so in the end the book left a bad taste in my mouth, despite having been a fairly enjoyable dystopian novel.

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death- by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with DeathSlaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a classic that I was very excited to read [in part because of Crash Course Literature's summaries of it, but it was a very odd book. I know that it is supposed to be surrealist novel but even so it was very hard to follow. I am sure that writing a story about the horrors of war in this way is one way to cope with the autocracies of war, but it also made the book very hard to relate to. I did enjoy and was amused by the idea of flashbacks being time-travel. Furthermore, I was reminded of the story In the Realms of the Unreal by Henry Drager which I originally stumbled upon because of Sufjan Steven's song "The Vivian Girls Are Visited In The Night By Saint Dargarius And His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies". I became obsessed with learning about Henry Drager, whose book was never published and is classified as outsider art literature but seems to be very similar to this and very surreal.
Overall, I found this book too random and disjointed to follow or enjoy.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: The Martian- by Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's not much I can say about this without spoiling it, but it was a great book. Certainly the best I read all summer. It is one of those books I will read again. I had heard about the book from several places, including it being a best book of the year by Goodreads. I hadn't given it much thought, but I did decide I might as well read it as my adult fiction book for my second cycle of the summer because it was kind of a way of cheating and getting a sci-fi book in instead. Days before I was able to start reading it Randall Munroe wrote about it in xkcd 1536 and I became really excited about reading it. All the more so when I saw the preview for the upcoming movie.

The book was very good, the science seemed very accurate, and I was really surprised at the amount of humor in the book. Towards the end some of the engineering seemed like a bit of a stretch, but still I was hooked and on the edge of my seat. I cannot praise it enough and I cannot wait to re-read it or for the movie.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Book Review:The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as if He Doesn't Exist- by Craig Groeschel

Christian AtheistThe Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book as my religion one for my reading cycle, but I wasn't sure whether it was going to be for or against it at first, honestly I picked it up because the title interested me and I did not read a blurb or even the subtitle I don't think.
Anyway, it is pro-Christianity. The author's complaint is that many Christians do not live Christian lives, that is you wouldn't be able to tell whether they are Christian or atheist. He of course calls this Christian Atheism throughout the book, but it looses its shock value pretty quick and became kind of annoying after that because I think there are proper Biblical terms for a Christian who has slipped off the straight and narrow path. Also, I do not believe that salvation can be lost or that backsliding is any reason to question salvation.
Trhoughout the book I had trouble relating to the author because his Christian experience was so unlike anyone I know, and certainly unlike myself. Even my friends who were not raised in a Christian home didn't have backwards experiences or beliefs like he did. It does make for a humorous story, but at times the "Christianity" he believed and has grown up out of is unbelievable and that makes relating to it difficult. I wonder where the responsible adults and leaders in his life were when he needed them and feel blessed to have had the positive Christian education that I did.
None-the-less, despite the zaniness, I was convicted several times as I read the book about things that I need to do better. It was a much more impactful and powerful read than the prior Christian book (Radical) I read.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: If You Ask Me: And of Course You Won't- by Betty White

If You Ask Me: And of Course You Won'tIf You Ask Me: And of Course You Won't by Betty White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short, simple, and funny.
I don't know how much of my generation falls into my category, but I've become a fan of Betty White as an adult. I knew her from Golden Girls, but every time my babysitter was watching reruns of it, I was too young to really follow it [or want to follow it I have to be honest]. I've never really gone back and re-watched things that she has done and there is not a single series she has done that I have ever watched. Still I know her from a few commercials and plenty of guest appearances (and of course, the occasional Golden Girls rerun, my sister-in-law is a huge fan) and she is not only funny, but genuinely talented. She also seems to be truly humble about her fans and her fame. I do understand being shy and not a huge fan of people, none-the-less I disagree with helping animals and pets and investing in them over needy people. Still I can't fault her for this one quirk and she is open and honest about it. It was great to hear her read the book and she mentioned she had written several others, which I suppose makes the shortness of this one forgivable.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War- by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I held off on reading this book simply because I don't do well with horror and I wasn't sure how gruesome this book would be. I decided to give it a chance after listening to Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse. The telling a futuristic sci-fi story from the perspective of hindsight was simply a unique way to tell a story and since he was kind of inspired by this book I thought I would give it a chance. The book was so stellar I couldn't put it down and I finished in less than 24 hours. I think I enjoyed most how the book never repeated the perspective of any one point of view. I also enjoyed how it didn't hesitate to dabble into all of the "geo-political, religious, environmental, [economic] and social changes that result from the Zombie war". It was tragic and entertaining, chilling and wondrous- not to mention thought-provoking. And it did it without ever being too disturbing or creepy. The only regret I have, although I am sure I will remedy it when I get around to reading it again [it is one of the few books that I think I could re-read and enjoy], is that it was performed by an all-star cast and I kind of wish I had a list of who was portraying who while I listened to it at x2 speed. One of the books I read of this past summer that I would recommend most highly.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption- by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great book with a horrible title.
There are two things I dislike about this book one is the title and I will address that at the end of this review because it has spoilers. The other is in the introduction and although this might spoil things a little bit, it is seriously the opening pages of the book. (view spoiler)
Anyway the book is an amazing story of triumph over the tribulation of war and its horrors- specifically the horror of being a prisoner of war for some nations. In fact, the book made me wonder why we as Americans were so willing to forgive and pardon Japanese atrocities, but not Nazi ones. I'm not certain on my views, but I think it is slightly racist- we expected better of white Europeans, but not of Asian races. The other theory is simply one of guilt, that despite what they did during the war, we felt guilty about using The Bomb. I, of course, could be wrong, but that part of the story really sat wrong with me. [As a side note, I harbor nothing against the Japanese people- I spent two weeks there one summer in college and the only bad part of the experience was some of the people I was with].
I remember when I first heard about the book, it was an NPR article I heard while running an errand during the summer of 2014. Zamperini had just passed away and they summarized his story and mentioned it was being turned into a movie. My wife was doing work outside when I got home and I summarized the story even more to her and half-jokingly she said, "They don't make them like that anymore." My grandfather fought in the war and it is very easy at times to idolize him and others of The Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw, put it, however, they were human and that is what is so great and so sad about his life immediately after the war. In the end there is redemption and triumph again, but there were many failures along with the successes, not to mention normal human quirks and faults. A very good and inspiring read, I finished in only one day.
And now for why I dislike the title: (view spoiler)

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History- by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth ExtinctionThe Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was the rare science book that I didn't really enjoy. It was kind of disappointing because it was hard to find an audiobook copy of it and once I located on it was constantly checked out and anytime it was on hold for me I was in the middle of something else [or not reading a science book because of the cycle of genres that I force myself to read]. So when things finally synced up for me to read the book I was very excited.
I am not saying the book was bad, just disappointing for what I expected. Some of that is my fault because I was under the impression that the book was about the five past extinctions and that the book would argue the case for the sixth one going on currently. Part of that is the fault of how the book was promoted, when I originally heard about it on the radio. Furthermore, the cover has the image of an animal from the last extinction, although (view spoiler).
I did learn quite a bit that I didn't know previously, and Elizabeth Kolbert was preaching to the choir with me, I don't need to be convinced that there is an major extinction event going on and that it is human caused. I was also surprised to learn, being an Ohio native, about what a big role the Cincinnati Zoo has played in trying to breed and preserve Sumatran Rhinos. My daughters actually went there a day or two after I had read the book so that was cool for them to get to see. The book is very heavy on the current extinctions and endangerment and is as much about ecology as it is about biology, but overall it was a good read.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: Yes, Please!- by Amy Poehler

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was my comedy choice on my reading cycle. Honestly, it just happened to be the book on my read later list that was available when it came time to read one and I wasn't particularly excited about it. Amy Poehler is good and funny, I don't hold the sexist view that women can't be funny which her friend Tina Fey maybe spent a little too much time arguing for her her book Bossypants. It is just that I have always thought Tina Fey was much funnier and even as much as I love Sarah Silverman I was a little disappointed when I listened to her book, The Bedwetter, this past spring. So I didn't have high expectations for this book.
In fact later winter and early Spring as my wife spent some time ill in bed she binge watched Parks and Recreation and kept trying to get me to watch it with her, but I was just not hooked in by it the way I was with 30 Rock and others. All of that said, I kind of regret not watching the show with my wife and fortunately have convinced her that after a short break from it we'll watch it together next time. I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It was funny and revealing. It made me nostalgic for some old SNL, although I think they've hit their stride again with the current cast. I still didn't laugh as hard or much as I have with Tina Fey's book, or Jim Gaffigan's or pretty much any of their stand-up routines, but going in with low expectations as I've already said I was very pleasantly surprised. I immediately recommended the book to my wife over several others she was hoping to read and I look forward to finally watching Parks & Rec or whatever project Amy takes on next.

EDIT/ADDENDUM: I tried the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and she wasn't lead on the project so I can't blame her, but I couldn't make it through the first episode. Maybe if I had seen the movie and enjoyed it the humor of the show would be more relatable, but I doubt it- it was BAD!

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein, or the Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another classic that you are supposed to have read at some point in high school or college, but I never had it assigned and had never gotten around to picking it up on my own. In my college days it was probably because I was afraid of it being gruesome, if not scary. In recent times simply because I have learned more about the book and was afraid it would be dull or boring. I don't recall if the current English teacher at the school I teach at has every assigned this book, but I know the prior teacher did and I got mixed reviews from students. However, I picked this up one day this summer and couldn't put it down. I found myself in the kitchen listening to it and preparing a week's worth of meals, just to give myself the excuse to keep secluding myself to enjoy the book just a little longer. I ended up finishing the book in under 24 hours.
Of course, the portrayal of science was somewhat dated and at times very inaccurate, even in the sections not dealing with reanimating corpses. None-the-less I enjoyed the give and take debate between professors and archaic alchemical ideas. Victor also hit the nail on the head when he described the allure of science
"None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder."

I also loved how Victor wrestled with what he was doing and even became obsessive about his work. From there the dilemma that emerges and the wrestling with morality that takes place is riveting. Furthermore, I did not realize that the bride of Frankenstein's monster was from the original novel, I kind of always saw it as a Hollywood and cartoon knockoff. The book was much better than I ever imagined it would be. It did not stick with me quite as much, and was not as chilling as the ending of, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it was a very good read. I certainly understand why this classic is so well enjoyed and would recommend it without hesitation.

Two asides:
1. I have written previously about how the vlog version, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, of Pride and Prejudice made me want to read the original. Since then that group has done their own version this book as well, Frankenstein M.D. I wish that I could say they inspired me to read this story, but in reality I felt that I was reading it in spite of their portrayal. Not that it was horrible, it just wasn't Lizzie Bennett Diaries good.

2. I couldn't find a good way to work it into the review above, but another quote from the novel that I fell in love with:
"Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling; but I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death -- a state which I feared yet did not understand."
(emphasis added)

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Reivew: The Tipping Point- by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big DifferenceThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book by Malcolm Gladwell that I have read. I decided to start at his first one since I could and to work my way through them if I enjoyed the first one. To skip forward to the end, I will be reading his other books, in fact it has taken me so long to write this review that I have already read another one, Blink.
This book was good in that it looked for simple explanations of fads and crazes. I've seen the ideas espoused in the books come up in many places since then and I believe this points to them running true in many circumstances and that his ideas are gaining wide acceptance. One poor application/summary of his ideas was given in a TED talk that I like, but the distinction between that speakers three categories were not as clear as Gladwell's.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Review: The King Raven Trilogy: Hood, Scarlet, & Tuck- by Stephen Lawhead

I allow myself an exception in my normal reading cycle to read a whole series instead of breaking it up over multiple rounds. My wife has been a Stephen Lawhead fan for many years and has tried many times to get me to read him. I had always come across a struggle to find all of the books in a series on audiobook before and so this made it difficult. Recently, however, my library has added many of his books to their digital collection and so I checked out the complete King Raven Trilogy and finally gave him a chance. This review is of all three books in the series. I am pretty certain that I remember which parts came from which book, but there might be spoilers.

I enjoyed Hood quite a bit, but it was very slow. Lawhead seemed to give a lot of details and spend a descent amount of time focused on the details of daily life as part of setting the scene. However, it was an enjoyable retelling of the Robin Hood story and certainly a believable take on it. He explained at the end a minor bit of evidence that caused him to change the traditional setting and the story does fit well into the time period and the politics. Having read the full Wikipedia article on it in 2012, about the time my wife was reading Tuck the origins of the story are murky enough to make this take plausible. It also seems that the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood borrowed minor things from this book. Once (view spoiler) the story and pace really picked up. The psychological and guerrilla warfare was very gripping to read. Honestly, it would have been OK if it ended there, even if it didn't cover the full legend.
However, the story continued in Scarlet and took an odd turn from there. It went from being third-person [limited I seem to recall] to first-person and followed Will Scarlet instead of Bran. The story again drug at times and we seemed to miss action that would have been included had the perspective been more inclusive, if nothing else, I felt a stronger connection to Bran than the new character. My only guess is that in addition wanting to tell the story from another perspective it helped Lawhead drag the story out into a trilogy and made it easier to develop the plot by hiding much of it away from the reader in other people's minds. The book wasn't bad, but no where near as good at the first in the series.
The story continued and concluded with Tuck. I seem to recall that this story had a mix of first and third person points of view, but either was it was better than the second in the series. The plot moved along nicely and the secrecy and subterfuge was very entertaining. It lacked the epic battle scene that so many versions of the Robin Hood, especially movie versions, seem to build up to, but part of this telling's charm is the unique take on the story and the retelling of it.
My wife has argued to me that this is one of her least favorite Lawhead books, just above his sci-fi novels. I remember her encouraging me to read it when it came out, but still I'll take her word on it. If that is the case then his others will probably be good, but I cannot say that I loved it or that I am eager to return to him as an author. Personally, I enjoyed it more because of the original take on the legend than for the writing itself.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks- by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that I put off reading for a long time because even though it was [and to a large extent still is] a very popular science book it has a biology focus and so I stalled as long as I thought that I could. However, last summer the English teacher read it in the hopes of doing a collaborative project with the Biology teacher and I figured it was time that I give it a read. Having finished it in one weekend, I can say with sincerity that I regret having waited so long.
As a new author Rebecca Skloot is not as well polished as many of the other science authors I enjoy [[author:Sam Kean|3206446], Mary Roach, Dava Sobel, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc.], but the story she chose to research and devote so much time to digging up as many details as possible was a gripping one that hooked me in. The ups-and-downs of the family and the lax education received in both rural and urban areas, especially among minorities, is a tragedy and makes it unsurprising that the family has come to not trust the outside world, science, or the medical profession. There is still a large uphill battle of overcoming injustices and restoring relationships.
Also, without getting too political, this book was written before Obamacare. One point that was continuously made was how much Henrietta Lacks's stolen (or at least improperly donated) cells, HeLa, have helped the medical profession and yet her descendants see no profit and struggle to get and afford medical insurance. For those who are against Obamacare because it subverts capitalist economics, a real serious look is needed at who benefits from capitalism and who is left behind.
Unfortunately, because of a non-graphic rape scene it was decided to not have sophomores read this book. This confuses me a little bit since we have freshmen read about a fictional rape in (view spoiler). I love the benefits that cross-curricular activities bring to students and I wish it could be more easily facilitated, but that is a rant for another time.

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: William Shakespeare's Star Wars Trilogy:Verily, A New Hope, The Empire Striketh Back, & The Jedi Doth Return by Ian Doescher

First, I read the whole trilogy in two days and am reviewing all three here.
Normally, I do not like audiobooks that are read by full-casts but it worked for this book. The intros and outros were not from the actual book and kind of took away from them a little bit, but otherwise this was one of the few full cast books where it was easy to follow the different voices. It does help that were choruses and asides to explain what would normally be done by a narrator or simply the author setting the scene.
This book once again reignited my desire to read the complete works of Shakespeare which I think is the book's strength. I've written before about how I would change US high school English class curriculum and I think a book like this is the way to get many students who are maybe relucant to start Shakespeare at least interested and slightly familiar with the style. After all Ian Doescher is a Shakespeare fan and tried to be true to the style, while taking minor, but creative licenses- like having Yoda, speak in haiku instead of in the Shakespearean style. Overall, these were great short reads and will amuse fans of Star Wars and/or Shakespeare. Now if only I could find the prequels on audio [not to mention having to patiently wait for the final installment].

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