Psychoacoustics

young mantis helicopter metal gear solid v

What’s one thing that has an outsize effect on influence and emotion but doesn’t get the respect it deserves, especially in the security space?

Music.

Fascinating episode of the Cognitive Crucible:

During this episode, US Army Sergeant Major Denver Dill discusses how music and the arts can be used as tools of influence. Our wide ranging conversation covers the role of music in military operations to the theme park experience to movies to sports.

#91 DENVER DILL ON THE ARTS AND MUSIC, Cognitive Crucible Podcast

We know that effective propaganda goes after emotions, not logic. Now think of any movie you’ve watched and the way that you can be compelled to feel a certain way with the right sound or chord.

Combine music with moving images and now you have a powerful tool for influence.

Don’t believe me?

In the episode, they discuss the role music can play in influence, especially on the active battlefield. As an example, they mention the use of bagpipes as a tool of intimidation. The ominous and unsettling sound of bagpipes was used to confuse and strike fear in enemy troops.

More examples where you can see music at work – in this case, to increase anxiety – are the films of Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception). Here is a good write-up about the “Shepard tone” which is deployed effectively in those films.

Shepard tone, huh?

Anxiety attack at the ~:22 mark.

This is an area that needs a lot more research.

What other ways can sound and music be applied to the modern battlefield?

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SOF Superpowers

Another episode of the Pineland Underground. This one was focused on the academic program at the Naval Postgraduate School and what that program could do for the force.

Here’s the line that grabbed my attention and inspired the headline:

“Special operations students have a superpower here – it’s not that these guys are going to split the atom or invent the longer lasting light bulb, but through their capability of navigating different cultures, navigating different groups of people, and [it’s] bringing them together around a common problem.”

Applied Design for Innovation | Graduate Program for Warfighters and Innovation Brokers, Pineland Underground

I’d argue that the superpower extends well beyond graduate school.

That’s really it, isn’t it?

“Can you get the State Department person on board? Can you get the tech startup founder on board? Can you get the neuroscientist from Stanford on board?”

Go on.

“Can you navigate all of these personalities, all these cultures, all these people, and mobilize them, understand their incentives, understand their identity, can you mobilize them around an innovation challenge?”

That’s the superpower right there. It’s less about having the power yourself, and more about unlocking it around you.

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Future Warfare Attributes

mass effect female warrior

I love this slide.

These are the types of attributes we want in our leaders to be effective in future war.

I don’t think anyone would argue against them. Would love to know the story about how these were decided on.

But boy! What an ask!

Is our system designed to select for these types of attributes? Or to train them?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is a resounding no.

How do we fix that? Is it even fixable? Are we asking too much?

Worth thinking about.

  • Nonlinear thinking – Understanding, working with, and making predictions using complex, asynchronous ideas and patterns over time and space.
  • Strategic patience/inaction – Willingness and ability to inhibit action and tolerate ambiguity in order to be able to act decisively at the right moment in order to increase the effectiveness of action.
  • Fast cognitive fusion – Analyzing, synthesizing, and making decisions based on high volume, high velocity, multisource information in order to monitor, understand, and direct multiple, interdependent, semi-autonomous units and systems.
  • Inductive/abductive reasoned action – Ability to observe, analyze, and willingness to act on partial information in the environmnet, drawing inferences about generalized rules and patterns (inductive) or likeliest cause-effect relationships (abducitve) given data observed.
  • Technological fluency – Ability to comprehend and control multiple, integrated semi-autonmous technological systems and evaluate and integrate multiple information streams from battlefield sensors, cyber, etc. to effectively operate these systems.
  • Psychophysiological durability – Physical, psychological, and cognitive robustness, endurance, self-awareness, and self-management in the face of the prolonged stresses of extended, autonomous operatoins and exteme stresses of extended high-intensity combat.
  • Teamwork development and synchronicity – Ability and willingness to rapidly develop and sustain strong teamwork onds and working relationships to be effective in dynamic, extended combat operations.
  • Complex spatial awareness and visualization – Developing and sustaining awareness and visualization of spatial relationships and movements in complex three dimensional, subterranean, and urban environments.
  • Predictive social reasoning – The ability to understand and predict the perspective and likely perception of actions/activities by other groups and individuals in order to enhance the effectiveness of combined/synchronized cross-domain actions.

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Neurowarfare

jack from mass effect charging for a punch

This is an interesting one that is kind of flying under the radar.

SOF operators do not currently receive any direct training on neurowarfare (indeed, most are unfamiliar with the concept entirely), and published research is strikingly limited. Of the small number of academic publications on the topic, only a handful directly address neurowarfare. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are uniquely positioned to confront the complex and dynamic threats neurowarfare poses but is currently under-prepared to take up the challenge. Part of the reason is a lack of general awareness. Although US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) prioritizes neuroscience research and innovation, especially for cognitive enhancement, comparatively less is known about neuroweapons that cause cognitive degradation.

CHANGING HEARTS AND BRAINS: SOF MUST PREPARE NOW FOR NEUROWARFARE

Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “neurowarfare” before, but I understand the concept. This is how the authors define it:

Neurowarfare is the strategic takedown of a competitor through the use of neuroweapons that remotely “target the brain or central nervous system to affect the targeted person’s mental state, mental capacity and ultimately the person’s behavior in a specific and predictable way.

Ok, but wait a minute, isn’t this kind of like psychological operations?

Psychological operations share similar goals but achieve them through communication, typically over the long-term. Neuroweapons physically manipulate the brain and achieve immediate effects.

Right – these are the things that physically affect the brain. This is tough stuff. Ouch.

It’s an interesting article and I agree with the authors that we need to be accounting for this. Our adversaries do not share the same ethical concerns regarding the use of new technology to gain advantage. This is not a domain that we want to show up blind in.

The authors make three key recommendations:

  1. Train and educate the SOF enterprise on neurowarfare
  2. Conduct research (cognitive degredation research)
  3. Develop doctrine

The authors rightfully acknowledge the biggest challenge we face in this realm regards the ethics of it all.

The most difficult—and likely to be the most contentious—are the serious moral and ethical concerns of whether the United States should consider pursuing offensive neuroweapons. Should the United States pursue an offensive capability, even if only discovered accidentally through private sector research? If so, what sort of weapons would be morally acceptable to use and how should they be employed? Should these weapons be reserved for high-priority targets or will we get to a point where neuroweapons are routinely employed in conjunction with more traditional forms of warfare?

I have two chief concerns with this. One, anything “neuro” will likely be thought similarly as “psychological,” which people tend to treat as a “dirty word.” Second, when we “split” instead of “lump” the work becomes so specialized so as to be difficult to explain – or use.

And as always, Small Wars Journal continues to publish interesting things that remain on the margins of debate. This is another one that deserves discussion.

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Video Games as FICINT

ashley wearing pink helmet mass effect

A lot of talk about “FICINT” or ficitional intelligence lately. This is good. Things are moving so quickly these days it’s hard to make logicial conclusions about what’s coming next.

Long-time readers will know that I’m a gamer – it’s my hobby. More than any other medium, I’ve found inspiration to think, write, and reflect, through games. I’d argue that games have always been loaded with meaning and narrative, but it’s true that as the gaming industry and community has matured, the plots and topics embedded have as well.

I never really thought of games as FICINT, but over the years I’ve written a number of pieces pulling directly from games as a way to think about mental health, stolen valor, suicide (and here), the military’s role in a zombie apocalypse, the RPG elements of military service, the importance of “staying alive,” military deception, the absurdity of war, soldiers vs. warriors, decision making, and grand strategy. I’m sure there is more, but that’s off the top of my head.

And I’m not alone. There are plenty of writers who are finding the intersection of war, warfare, and gaming. See this recent article in WOTR on the video game Eve and what it may teach us about the forever war. One of my favorite authors in this space is Matthew Gault, who also is a part of the Angry Planet podcast.

I always get the impression that when folks write about gaming and its relevance to anything outside of entertainment, it isn’t taken as seriously as film or literature. Maybe that is changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. There is still a bias against gaming, and to many, it’s still considered a thing for children.

The reality is, we’re more than thirty years into a still-growing field. Three out of four Americans play video games. The video game industry is expexted to surpass $181 billion globally in 2021 (compared to $34 billion for the film industry).

When I joined the military in 2001, most soldiers played video games. Sure, there was a cadre of older soldiers who had joined in the 1990s (or earlier) who weren’t really into it, but the shift was already taking place 20 years ago.

The men and women joining the military these days have only lived in an era of “next-generation” video game platforms. Even the original Playstation and Xbox were before their time.

We’re at a perfect point to leverage games to help us understand the world around us. It is relevant.

There have been plenty of FICINT-like pieces written using Star Wars or Game of Thrones as a frame of reference. Those are taken seriously.

Why not games?

As an aside, my original intent for this post was to lament the fact that I’ve only recently gotten interested in the gaming photo community. I was first introduced to it through Dead End Thrills, which captures gorgeous screenshots. As I was looking at relaunching CTG, I wanted to find a space to share more gaming stuff that wouldn’t clog the blog. That’s what I use Instagram for. There is a whole community of gamers who are sharing screenshots. It’s also another way to expand the reach of the blog and hopefully bring in folks who might not have an inroad to ‘critical thinking on war and warfare.’

And the reason for the lamentation is the fact that I’ve missed so many great opportunities to share. Fallout 4, Red Dead Redepmtion II, Death Stranding, the Last of Us II. All done, and games that I’m not likely to go back to for awhile.

Thankfully, the Mass Effect Trilogy remaster will be coming with a photo mode.

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“Tell them I held the line…”

mordin looking at a digital flower

Originally published in 2012.

Tell them I held the line…

I just finished Mass Effect 2, having rolled into it right after playing Mass Effect. 

I know I could have looked online to see how to make it through the last mission with everyone, but I enjoy playing the game blind – it’s more realistic that way.

Everything was going well on the Collector Base, and when I had to choose a leader for the diversion team, I thought Mordin would be a good choice given his background with the Salarian Special Tasks Group.

Well, that didn’t work out, and Mordin didn’t make it.

The rest of the squad made it, but only Dr. Chakwas from the Normandy.

I’m looking forward to finishing the fight, sometime before Christmas.

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War: Less like Call of Duty, more like Mass Effect

Originally published in 2014.

I forgot what prompted me to make this comparison. I think I had heard someone making the comparison of war to the popular game ‘Call of Duty.’ They may have been disputing the comparison, but the linkage was made. I remember shortly after getting out of the Army, a young boy’s first question upon learning that I had served in the Army overseas was to ask if it was like ‘Ghost Recon,’ another popular war game.

I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty or any of the ‘realistic’ first person shooters. They are flashy and visually stunning, but they are simple in their execution. For the most part, you navigate your avatar across a generally linear course, destroying everything in your path. Granted, I’m leaving out some things, but that is generally how the games work. Move. Destroy. Repeat until complete.

Those games reflect the exciting, but proportionally minute experiences of wartime service. Even out on the tip of the spear, the shooting war happens infrequently. I’ve never been in a Ranger or special operations unit – maybe their experience is Call of Duty-ish, but I’d venture it isn’t. A very tiny proportion of the American public experiences military combat, and the most visceral link the rest of the population gets comes displayed on an electronic screen in the form of movies and ‘realistic’ war games.

But if these games are zooming in and exploiting those tiny moments and expanding them to feature length, what then might serve as a better comparison?

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.

These nuances seem much more familiar to my military experience than anything I’ve seen in a ‘realistic’ combat game.

I don’t know, maybe I just missed out.

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Mental health and suicide in the Army – A lesson from Mass Effect

kelly from mass effect face
Kelly Chambers. BA, Psychology.

Originally published in 2012.

This past week has seen a couple of sobering reports released by the Pentagon concerning suicide in the military. The first confirmed that in the first 155 days of 2012 there have been 154 confirmed suicides by active-duty service members across the force. 136 service members were killed in Afghanistan during the same period.

On Wednesday, suicide was named as the second-highest cause of death for servicemembers (after combat), outpacing car accidents, cancer, and other causes of death.

Suicide has been a growing problem for the Army over the past ten years. Understandably, people often point to the pace of deployment and the over-stretching of the all-volunteer force as the likely antagonizer. It makes sense to assume that deploying the same people over and over again might result in an increase in mental health issues (which it might). But in the Army’s 2009 study on suicide, 79% of soldiers who committed suicide had one or no deployments. So while the pace of deployments might have an effect on overall mental health, it does not correlate with the increase in suicides.

What this means is that we still do not know why this is happening.

For its part, the Army has worked hard to try to combat suicide. Even before I got out of the Army in 2006, suicide was already a topic that was treated seriously by commanders. If someone threatened to kill himself – even in jest – it was a threat that needed to be taken seriously.

I’ve been back in the Army for under a year, but I have already seen the introduction of some great programs that are intended to get ahead of mental health problems and ultimately suicide. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a program designed to build “resilience” in soldiers (and family members) to prepare them for the rigors of not only combat and military service, but life in general.

I have not taken the Master Resilience Trainer Course (yet) but I have taken some of the individual modules while at IBOLC. Without question, the program requires a “buy-in” from the participant. Essentially, the person engaging in CSF needs to “want” to get better or become more resilient. In a military where a mental health stigma still exists, getting that “buy-in” is the hard part. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to take the course before leaving Fort Benning. I’ve already bought in.

Anyway, like the title of this post hints, I’m going to talk about Mass Effect. Readers of this blog know that I take inspiration from fantasy – be it art, music, or video games. I’ve been playing the series for the past couple of months and recently began playing Mass Effect II. One of the things that struck me was the presence of Kelly Chambers aboard the Normandy. Kelly serves as Commander Shephard’s Executive Assistant, but she also serves as the chief mental health officer. Her job is to monitor the mental health of the entire crew to ensure that any problems can be addressed before they come to fruition. It struck me as the kind of thing that would be helpful at the platoon, company, or battalion level.

Given the nation and the Army’s shortage of mental health professionals, it would be aspirational at best to try to implement something like that across the force.

Still, it made sense to me that there should be someone – a human being – monitoring the mental health of the fighting force over a period of time. Questionnaires and tests are okay, but they lack the understanding that a person who has been around for months or years would have. I think if CSF is implemented effectively across the Army, the platoon MRT might serve this role. While not a true mental health specialist, this would be preferred to the little that is in place right now.

Be it mental health specialists at the platoon/company/battalion level, effective use of the CSF program, or something we haven’t thought of yet, it is clear that something more needs to be done to address suicide in the force. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but when I see something that I think might be helpful, I’ll bring it up. Thus, the vignette from Mass Effect.

Here is a great resource from the Army G1 on Suicide Prevention.

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Eating Soup with a 900′ Powerglove: Mass Effect, Mechanical Armies, and the Reaper as Counterinsurgent Fever Dream

shepard looking out at a reaper mass effect

This event, entirely fictional, is inspired by chapter 33 of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it, Lawrence lays out his vision for how the Arab Revolt  might defeat the Turks in Arabia. In this, I lay out the counter-insurgent’s dream, a fantastical imagination of the introduction of the Reaper, a la Mass Effect fame, as the ultimate weapon in counter insurgency.

About four weeks I spent lounging in that stuffy barracks, eating – no, gorging – on what they allowed, my body soaking up the calories, exhausted from weeks of neglect. As usual, in such circumstances, my mind began to spin and process, finally turning towards that perpetual thing, war, but more accurately, insurgency. Till now, our moves and methods were built upon our mistakes and their remedies, solidified in doctrine and then presented as the final antidote, tried and deemed successful, though it was not. So, in this forced mental solitude, I began to look towards those things I knew of the subject from study and experience, as well as my many digital travels. In this caffeine-free environment, my brain shrunk and made the world around me a haze, in which I pondered the subject at hand.

I am as well read as any on the subject. I have read Petraeus, McChrystal, Kilcullen and Nagl. I follow @abumuqawama and the War Kids. I’ve read the ideas and actually did them, seeing their effects, better now with the luxury of time, distance, and results, or lack thereof.  All this has resulted in me and my peers an almost unquestioning acceptance of the way – drink tea, be nice, be patient.

To win, it is argued, the key lay in the population. Win them, their hearts and minds, and you shall know victory. It had become an obsession of ours. Learn the language, study the culture, be persistent and kind and absorb casualties if needed but by all costs, win the population. Then, and only then could one expect to find victory. Now that l was in this broken, recovering state, it became unclear to me if this goal was worthy and just. What again, did we want this for and why were we doing so much to achieve it?

The barracks ebbed and flowed with the chow hours. Breakfast followed by post-breakfast naps, then lunch and then more napping. Only come dinner did the camp come alive. Debate mixed with the agonizing stories of recent failure. While they gossiped, I lay in my bed, lower back aching from too much rest – the king’s ailment – and thought more of our aim in this war. Win the population. Only we showed no prospect of winning anybody’s population.

I flopped over on my bunk, relieving the pain in my lower back temporarily and closed my ears to the nonsense around me. What if winning the population was not the key? Maybe the goal was in fact, the destruction, or at least the permanent defeat of the enemy, that vapour, blowing where it listed. Population be damned.

A trio of soldiers laughed and debated the merits of wholesale annihilation vice the softer approach. I listened in as one made his point, struggling to convince the others of the foolishness of such a barbaric tactic. They would come to no conclusion.

This unending insurgency, this vapour, how to defeat it? The tools provided, we knew not, with any certainty, if they worked. A confluence of events in that vilified theater led to a sort of victory, while those same events attempted to be replicated in the virtuous theater, are at this time indecisive. Perhaps to win the long war, winning the people is the essence and necessity. But what might be done in the interim? Better, a cheaper, yet permanent solution that does not annihilate the insurgents but threatens as much?

They wanted after all, the removal of us from their lands – an understandable goal if ever there was one. To do so they harassed and sniped and bombed and generally caused havoc, not just for us but for the people of whom we have made it our goal to win. As much as we killed them, which wasn’t much enough to secure victory, we could not do so to that end. They fought for their own freedom, or notion of it, and we ours. Killing to killings end would not accomplish these war aims.

Days went by and my gorging increased before slowing to something recognizable. Vigor returned in small doses and I milled about, chatting lightly and raising spirits with riddles and games. My chief concern, as fantasist, lay still with the house of war, it’s tactics, strategy, and psychology, for my personal duty was service, and my service was to all.

The first confusion lay with the idea that this enemy could not be destroyed, or again, defeated. Their base was their idea, and how does one really kill an idea? This, given the proper gathering of intelligence, technology, and imagination might be overcome.

To hold this territory of square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps two hundred thousand square miles, we would need troops there, on the ground. Impossible! Yes, but perhaps, the counterinsurgent would argue, we could partner with the locals, our host nation brothers and sisters who would exponentially increase our numbers. True, I say, but would it yet be enough? And to be there and to win the population? And even then, we know they will not come to fight us with an army of banners, lest it be online, in the info-space. No, they do indeed come as an army, in small numbers, happy to exploit our size and vulnerability, knowing fully we must be careful in our application of violence to win the population. Armies, it was argued, are like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. They, the enemy, they are the vapour. Their kingdom lay in the mind. A regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only where he sat and subjugating only what he could poke his rifle at.

Yes, all this being true, to do the deed as we know it, we would need hundreds of thousands of light infantrymen, with support, to garrison the land. An expensive and altogether unlikely scenario.

Now then, we get to the rub of his whole thing. Let us take the assumption that what we need to win is an immovable Army large enough to poke his rifle at whatever it is he seeks to subjugate. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Instead of drafting the rank and file for the colourless duty on the imperial frontier, why not leverage the incredible advantage in technology that we solely possess and develop and deploy a new concept of counter-insurgent?

Imagine a gigantic spider of steel and electrons, nuclear powered and nearly invulnerable to small arms and explosives. Tall and wide, imposing and always there. Part of its weaponry is its size, imposing, a mobile skyscraper. Rooted into the ground, an immovable army – only it moves! Rapidly it does, descending from the air or creeping along the land, watching all around, threatening to strike. It is ever present and sinister. That is the nature of it, to strike fear into the hearts of men who wish to oppose it. It cannot be defeated, only avoided. And even then, assisted by its junior siblings, the drones, and their network of spies, it captures the vital element of the modern battlefield – information – and quickly processes that into a strike from it’s all seeing eye.

Yes, this might be the irrational tenth, the kingfisher of the pond, the test of generals, for there lay in this no real predecessor except in the minds of children and mad men.

The absolute strength of our power, to the sadness of the modern noble warrior, rests in the pure economic and scientific dominance we maintain over all. To engage in ground combat with the insurgent is madness. It provides the enemy with that chance to fight and win against an icon of his hatred. To send the Reaper, is to show that there is no hope. It cannot be defeated. It can be there forever or be there not at all, only to return in an instant.

Some, understandably, might object to the black nature of such a weapon. Is this not more humane than the alternative? Flooding a land with hundreds of thousands of individuals all guided by their own hearts, attempting to stroke a hostile population to neutrality, instead of deploying a dozen Reapers to act as statues of justice?

Battles in Arabia or its cousins were a mistake, since we profited in them not at all. But if we must, honesty may do more for the case of victory than ill-conceived notions of pure intent. Our power is not in patience or numbers, but technology and imagination. Our developments have been lateral, not horizontal. We saddled our trucks and troops with armor and a brief class on “culture” and called them counterinsurgents. Our power is our strength, and a failure of imagination stunted its development and deployment.

Time passed, and my weight restored, somehow more natural than even before. These thoughts solidified and were packaged and stored away.

It seemed to me that our forces are strong but not prepared for the enemy they face. Our enemy is sophisticated only in that it faces us as we are and not as we should be. Our own population is supportive so long as we remain safe, and so enamored by technology are they that the introduction of the Reaper would be the crown achievement and marvel of our time. On its first landing, the absolute folly of opposing it would become apparent, and in that the war would be won.

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The Keepers of the FOB

a green keeper doing maitenance on the citadel mass effect

Originally published in 2015.

The other day, as I exited my room, there was an older man in civilian clothes with a clipboard putting a fire extinguisher back into its wall-mounted cradle nearby. I nodded to the worker and he barely nodded back. A few days earlier, there was a small fire and all of the fire extinguishers were used and then seemed to dissapear.

And now, a few days later, they were recharged and back in their original place. No coordinations were made.

Something I’ve noticed more on this deployment than previous ones is the level of maintenance and upkeep that occurs on the FOB (Forward Operating Base). While some of it is done by military personnel, much of the day-to-day life functions are carried out by private contractors and local workers. It all kind of happens in the background, wrenches turning, equipment moving, fire extinguishers being replaced, all without anyone ever really noticing or even asking.

It reminded me of the Keepers on the Citadel (from Mass Effect). We’re warned early on not to mess with them; their origins are mysterious, but hey, they keep things running so why mess with a good thing?

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