skeptic etiquette

In the face of my very scientifically brilliant co-bloggers, this post might seem ridonkulously dumb, but this problem has been weighing heavy on my mind, and I'm trying to work it out.

My neighbors and I once shared a community garden in Los Feliz.  It was a small space in the back of our building that had once been filled with trash, broken furniture, and decades of rotting cigarette filters.

We decided to pool our resources and plant a garden. We salvaged some drawers from a broken bureau and grabbed some wine boxes from the local liquor store to repurpose as makeshift planters. Over time, we refinished a picnic table, purchased a barbecue grill, and ran electricity out to the patio and hung Christmas lights along the ivy on the back wall so we could actually see each other after sunset.

Normally, my friends are the product of a shared common ground in ideals, beliefs, and hair care products. Neighbor-friends are solely the product of shared geography, and they are therefore more likely to shock the shit out of me with firmly held ideas and beliefs that I find bizarre, and sometimes physically harmful.

For example, there was the time I woke to find a dirty hippie standing in the hall outside my apartment door with a cooler full of raw bison liver, promising to cure my neighbor’s Lyme Disease, naturally. Enraged, I glared at the crunchy bastard as he took her last $70 as she melted against the wall in exhaustion, having given up her antibiotics due to a weird distrust of “western medicine.” Eventually, she tried exorcism (to which my only reply was, “Uh, don’t you have to be Catholic for that?” because seriously, what else can you say?), but that didn’t work any better than the mystical healing meat.

She’s okay, now. Back on the antibiotics, and thriving. But if I see the hippie and his cooler of magic meat ever again, I’m going to punch him in the throat and drown him in disinfectant. Jerk. But aside from the rare-meat life-threatening stuff, most of my magic/god/meat-cure social problems are etiquette-based.

What exactly is the polite response when someone at a dinner party asks, “What’s your sign? I bet you’re a Taurus!”

The last time this question came up was at birthday celebration with my neighbors, at the bottom of the third bottle of wine at a tapas bar.

After listening thoughtfully to my dinner companions each explain how they were like their signs, it was my turn to answer.

I said, “You do realize that Jupiter and some random stars have no effect at all on you, right? I mean, why is it that you’re protected from the magical personality rays of the constellations when you’re buried a few inches deep in flesh and fat, but the second you come screaming out of your mom, the magical personality rays pierce through the brick, mortar, insulation, tile, and electrical wiring of to the third floor maternity ward of the hospital in which you have emerged to touch you with the magical essence of “Taurus,” you stubborn little baby bull!”

I am a bummer at parties.

No one was any more skeptical of astrology, and I ended up looking like the big jerk I actually am. So I’m trying to develop a personal etiquette code for situations such as this.

I consulted Jillian Venters of Gothic Charm School to help me with a skeptic’s etiquette plan, and presented her with my current options:

Question: What’s your sign? I bet you’re a Taurus!

Response Options:

  1. AWKWARD AND POLITE: “Aries, I guess. I don’t believe in astrology, so, um, how ‘bout those Mets?”
  2. SNARKY AND SATISFYING: “What’s your religion? I bet you’re an Episcopalian!”
  3. ITCHING FOR AN UGLY END TO DINNER: “You know that astrology is horseshit, right? What are you, a moron?”
  4. OMG U R SO WEIRD: (I make up my own “sign,” stringing together random celestial objects) “I’m a Boötesian, with Pleiades rising.  I am so totally fucked this week because Haumea is in retrograde. Stupid Kuiper Belt. I wish they had never discovered it.”

“Personally, I'd got with a combination of 1, 2, and 4, because I'm wacky that way,” says Jilli. “I have friends who believe LOTS of things I don't, and … I guess I try to honor other people's crazy and quirks the way I'd like them to honor mine. So I'd probably say, ‘I don't believe in astrology’, and if they pushed the subject I'd counter with, ‘Look, I really don't believe in it, and nothing you say is going to change my mind. Let's not talk about it.’”

“Of course, knowing me, I'd probably go on to talk about it, and try and get them to explain to me WHY they believe. Because, y'know, people are freaky and interesting, even if I privately think some of their beliefs are whackaloon.” Jillian’s point here is a good one. People really ARE freaky and interesting, and I’d hate to pass up an opportunity to do my own personal sociological study on freakiness. Perhaps I can apply for some sort of research grant.

Both the Lady of the Manners and I ended up agreeing that option #4 was the best, not for any particular etiquette reason, but because it’s weirdly zany and charming. Sometimes it’s best to answer Crazy Talk with more Crazy Talk. The key is to sound sincere. There’s a thin line between cleverly ironic and smarmy assholishness.

But it isn’t just astrology where I find myself on the edge of turning an otherwise pleasant conversation into prison riot. A friend I genuinely care about once spent $700 on astral-projection classes.

It’s not just astrology conversations where I feel awkward and left out.

One of my neighbors joined me for a drink one night and launched into an excited explanation of astral-projection. She had spent close to a grand on classes and had her first out-of-body experience. I have no poker face. None. It’s not that she didn’t have the money for such things, she makes plenty of dough and could just have easily spent it on new shoes without hurting her savings account. But she wanted to talk about this revelation, and my response was, “Sweetie, you had a hallucination. You paid a ridiculous sum of money to have a hallucination. You can get a bag of ‘shrooms for a tenth of what you just spent, and had enough cash left over to buy new shoes, too!”

This devolved into an argument on the “science” of astral-projection, and she swore that she has read many studies on how it is a fact, A FACT, that one’s mind can ski on out of one’s body and, I dunno, look up ladies’ skirts on the escalator at the mall.

The end result was that I promised to eat the full contents of my cat’s litter box if any of these “studies” could be repeated in an independent laboratory. Gah. I hope that never happens. I’m really lazy about cleaning the litter box.

Once again, I turned to Jilli for an appropriate response to, “I just spent a grand on an astral projection class and had my first out-of-body experience!”

“Yeah, I guess congratulations would be in order,” says Jilli. “And then probably an attempt to change the subject, because if you don't, the person will probably gush enthusiastically at you all about the astral projection class, and then you're stuck with nodding a lot and biting your tongue.”

Jilli’s advice is different if the friend in question is actually going into debt on such things:
“Sit down with them privately and say ‘Look, I understand you're seeking something, but I am worried about you being duped out of money and self-esteem that you shouldn't lose’. Try to explain why you're concerned, and maybe give them suggestions of other ways they can seek out answers without dropping huge amounts of cash? Most public libraries have a pretty good metaphysical/occult/New Age/spooky-pants section, and I would *strongly* encourage someone to investigate all of that before spending huge amounts of money for someone to hand enlightenment to them.”

Disclaimer: I’m not talking about when someone you love has just spent their retirement savings on a handful of magic beans. That sort of thing isn’t about etiquette, it’s about intervention. People who drain their bank accounts trying to attain access to magic have a problem akin to gambling, and I’m not equating random frivolous trips to a palm reader with taking out a second mortgage to gain “clarity” at the Scientology center on Sunset.

My neighbor Michelle is one of my most favorite people. She brings me soup when I am sick, feeds my cat when I am out of town, and is otherwise a wonderful friend.

She’s also ridiculously superstitious and quickly falls prey to any scam that promises to cleanse her body of toxins or clarify her soul.  I steer her away from things like Kinoki Foot Pads and The Secret, and she cuts my hair for free.

Michelle is convinced a ghost is turning the lights on and off in her kitchen. Michelle sees ghosts and troubled spirits in every electrical problem and broken radio.

I once told her that the sun will eventually go all red giant and scorch all evidence of humanity off the planet, and what will the ghosts do then? Haunt the ashes? Won’t that be really lame for the ghosts?

She laughs at me, and I laugh at her, and then we start making supper out in the community garden, tossing fresh asparagus in lemon juice and garlic.

“But dude! An OLD LADY DIED in that apartment!” she exclaims.

“DUDE! Something like SEVENTY BILLION PEOPLE died since the dawn of humanity. An OLD LADY DIED EVERYWHERE!” I holler.

Then we laugh again. I’m never going to convince her that her ghost is crappy wiring, and she’s never going to convince me that the dead return to life just to fuck with the ambient lighting schemes of aging hipsters like us.

These differences in beliefs don’t matter to me, really. Not in the grand scheme of a friendship with someone who comforts me when I’m going bananas, and genuinely cares for me.

Michelle is my only wacky-belief friend who has ever asked why I don’t believe in god, astral-projection, ghosts, or kinoki foot pads, and it is one of the many reasons why I love her.

Sometimes I think Michelle needs to believe in the supernatural, because she doesn’t really know how much there actually IS of the natural world to be dazzled by. No faith is required, just your own two eyes to see and hands to feel.

I told her that the universe is wonderful enough on its own. Space, stars, planets, black holes, galaxies, suns. The fact that out of all the elemental soup, people like us have evolved to walk and talk and create art, music, white wine, patent leather stacked mary jane shoes, Cocoa Puffs cereal, truck nutz, chocolate chip cookies, surf boards, and the Neiman Marcus cosmetics department is AMAZING. All by itself. Saying, “god did it” is heartbreaking. It pisses on the sheer wonderousness of it all, you know? I don’t need more.

The universe doesn’t need to be imbued with the mystical to make it “more” special. It’s like salting a pot of soup in someone else’s kitchen without permission.  It’s awfully presumptuous, and, well, more than a little rude.

52 thoughts on “skeptic etiquette”

  1. Great post!
    I allways have this kind of problem. This very week a friend of mine was reading a magazine about extraterrestrial ghosts! No kidding! What can you say?
    As for astrology, I usually say “aquarius, but if you consider the precession of the equinoxes, which the greeks knew about 3 thousand yeas ago, but somehow astrologers didn’t figure out yet, then it’s Aries”
    Too harsh?

  2. oh love this post too.
    a good friend taught me my favourite answer to ‘what starsign are you?’ ‘atheist.’

  3. Nodding politely and waiting for a change of subject works well enough for me.
    Though I guess the closest equivalent would be my friend who is very smart with the exception of being a 9/11 truther

  4. Great post. I just had this happen the other day when at a gathering a friend who I have known for almost 20 years laughingly said, “I can’t believe that people believe is all that mystical non-sense. I mean astrology is okay but…” The people at the gathering went silent, and the was awkwardness for about five minutes as we tried to change the subject. I instead went into why astrology did not work. we got through it and are still friends. ;^)

  5. The last time I was asked “What’s your sign?”, I replied “I’m a Scorpio, and Scorpios don’t believe in astrology”

  6. When people start talking about signs, instead of telling them my own I usually tell them that they aren’t the sign they think they are. When they realise that I know more about astrology than they do and think it’s a load of bull (although I put it in slightly less offensive terms than that), they tend to shut up.

  7. When I’m asked my sign I say National Speed Limit or Low Flying Motorcycles. Both are road signs in the UK.

  8. My usual response to “What’s your sign?” is, “What do YOU think it is?” After letting them make various guesses and finding out why they think they know what it is, I (oddly enough more often than 11 times out of 12) say they’re wrong and ask, “So does it really matter?”

  9. I love when people ask me my sign. My response, “Grounghog.” I was born on February 2nd so it about as appropriate as anything else. Strangely enough I’ve had people then ask me if that means I’m an earth sign. To which I decline to respond.

  10. Regarding the astrological sign, my preferred answer is “Ophiucus”. The sun does pass through this constellation, but few astrology-believers know about it. When they ask me what I mean, it gives me a chance to explain some real astronomy to them, such as when the borders of the constellations were defined.
    I think now I should add something about Eris, too. For the discord, you see.

  11. No one’s asked me this in years, but if asked today, I would probably say “The newspaper horoscope columns claim I’m a Capricorn, but when I checked it out on Stellarium, I found that the Sun was actually in Sagittarius when I was born. So I’m a bit confused about what my sign is supposed to be.” Could provide an opening for fact-based conversation, without any snarkiness.

  12. Me: “I’m a Libra”
    Response: “Oh, you are SO Libra.. you’re [adjectives] and you’re [more adjectives]”
    Me: “Yes, I think it’s amazing that everyone born in, say, early April is so much alike… it’s awesome!”
    Response: “April? You’re not a Libra, you’re an Aries! But then that fits, too… you’re [adjectives] and [adjectives] and you’re very [adjective]”
    Me: “Whoa, joke’s on me, huh? My birthday is in August. I can never keep those damn things straight. So which one am I again?”
    Must be said with complete sincerity.

  13. Happens to me a lot, too, and as a science prof, skeptical blogger, and hard science fiction writer, I fear I come across as an asshole too often. I used to stay silent unless asked directly. When I couldn’t stand to do that any more, I tended to go with something like, “there’s no compelling scientific evidence to support your irrational belief.” Totally true, but rarely constructive, setting them off on the defensive. I’m working now on a Socratic approach, asking them questions about exactly why they believe (or don’t believe) in something, seeking common ground in understanding before contradicting what may be cherished beliefs. This approach is slow, tedious, and unfortunately usually ends in an irrational statement without support that they don’t think is irrational whatsoever. Frustrating. I hate to pull the science professor card, but sometimes on the people who don’t think much there is is an immediate understanding that smart educated people don’t believe certain things.
    Well, more struggle. I think we’re in the dawn age here. Dawkins and others are breaking ground, taking the heat for being critical of irrational beliefs. I like to think that in the near future criticism will be acceptable and we can deal with issues of fact and faith openly, rather than having the distracting argument about how that Dawkins man is so mean and unfair for not respecting the most irrational and destructive of beliefs. I mean, there’s still racism, but it’s had to go underground with people being less tolerant of it, which has helped reduce it. Same thing with sexism. I like to think we’re finally taking the baby steps toward doing the same with irrationalism.

  14. I like Ariock Knight’s approach –
    ‘My usual response to “What’s your sign?” is, “What do YOU think it is?”‘
    I have a good friend like Michelle. We are so different in so many ways. People sometimes ask why we are friends. They don’t understand that friendship is about something else.
    The poker face? Mine is OK. If this were a complete stranger, I would be able to maintain my poker face. If this were a friend, I would have a lot of trouble. I don’t know if I would laugh or have a look of shock. When you get to know someone, I guess a part of you believes that they could not be that gullible.

  15. No one’s asked me this in years, but if asked today, I would probably say “The newspaper horoscope columns claim I’m a Capricorn, but when I checked it out on Stellarium, I found that the Sun was actually in Sagittarius when I was born. So I’m a bit confused about what my sign is supposed to be.” Could provide an opening for fact-based conversation, without any snarkiness.

  16. “DUDE! Something like SEVENTY BILLION PEOPLE died since the dawn of humanity. An OLD LADY DIED EVERYWHERE!” I holler.
    really? wouldn’t that be a lot closer to 7 than 70?

  17. Helena Constantine

    Spare that new-fangled astrology(Ha! not even 3000 years old!)! If I want to know the future, just give me a good old fashioned sheep’s liver!

  18. As was once stated by one more insightful than me,” A friend is someone who knows all about you, but likes you anyway,,,”.
    When beset by foolishness, I usually respond, “I’m an agnostic/mystic, rational/materialist. To me, ALL human religion is a scam and by its very nature(dogmatic/authoritarian) is in error. If you really want to know truth about reality, you must risk everything, put your life, sacred honor and bank account on the line. Then, if you survive, you may begin to understand. Or, you can accept what some money grubbing dufus has to sell. Your choice,,,”.
    This usually has them shaking their heads, wandering off to bother someone else.
    GAry 7

  19. I have ~got~ to find the spooky-pants section at my local library.
    Lots of people have the true believerism, some cases are just easier to spot than others…
    A musician friend of mine was convinced that purchasing a used musical instrument from a skilled musician is worth a premium. Especially if they played it for a looong time. Not because the professional has good judgment regarding the choice of a well-made instrument. Oh no. Because their playing of it changed its fundamental nature over time and made it better in tune! The guy is a professional trombonist and a well-educated one at that, but could not be convinced that his musical heroes are incapable of blowing enough hot air re-arrange brass at the molecular level.
    My brother, for all of his ability to reason logically, perpetually latches on to each new idea as The Best Thing Ever. The best alternative to coffee, the best concept in urban planning, the amazing benefits to musculature and balance that derive from unicycle riding. I can’t deny that some of his ideas are fetching, but sometimes his devotion to them is perilously close to the zealotry of the astrologer.
    It seems to me that most of us end up picking some manner of inflexible thinking and belief. Religion and hippydippy stuff are easy targets, but I think that skeptics are prone to advocacy of Intellectual Truth in a way that is even more unhealthy. It’s still a quest for an unknowable authority, but the average person has to get past their fear of “am I smart enough?” before they can question it. We make new gods faster than we can slay them.
    My Michelle is called Niki, and I love her to pieces.
    @Ben-happy birthday!

  20. > @Ben-happy birthday!
    Eh? No, that was “Clinton”; attribution is under the post.
    The separator lines are very misleading.

  21. “Once again, I turned to Jilli for an appropriate response to, ‘I just spent a grand on an astral projection class and had my first out-of-body experience’!”
    I guess mine would be “Silly you! I´m just developing a something that’s way better, not to mention cheaper! It´s called the Super-Hero-Experience! We start by choosing a super power, not that just flying thru walls bs, but ANYTHING, from x-ray vision, superstrengh, telecinesis, teleportation or whatever you’d like. I’ll even let you borrow my copy of X-men 2 to help you choose. Then we´ll talk about it all day long, you’ll think about it all day long and when you’re ready to sleep, guess what… you’ll DREA.. well huh, your soul is actually gonna do it! And it´s like scientology, if you keep payi.. i mean, studying, you’ll can add up superpowers and become, like, a YODA!”
    Nice text by the way. It´s an interesting topic, and I´ve seen myself on many situations like that. I’d just like to add that there´s one more factor that can make a huge difference. It´s the voice tone, and specially a smile. I find that whatever we say with a nice and peacefull intention works better than an “oh, right..” with eyes rolling on the side. See, Dawkins never smiles.
    -Thadeu Luz

  22. @Mike B: “I think we’re in the dawn age here.”
    Hey, like, dude, it’s the Age of Aquarius innit? 😉
    Maybe after the ancient Persians’ Mithras cult of Taurus (whom Europa tamed) and whatever the previous silliness has for a sign, the time is now at last getting ripe for some sound scepticism?
    Agree, nice post! Thank god I’m neither superstitious nor religious, touch wood.

  23. Many years ago, I came up with an answer that always works when talking with someone one-on-one. My sign? “Pavement ends.” That immediately intrigues people and we go on to discuss living in the country, which I do.
    I’ve never had anyone try to steer things back to astrology, and I’ve never had anyone get offended.
    Don’t know if it’d work in a group — I suspect not.

  24. Depending on the kind of party you go to, your best answer to “What’s your sign?” might be “Slippery When Wet.”

  25. I totally go for #4. Whenever the conversation touches upon reincarnation, I go off on a rant about all my past lives: “So bloody frustrating! This is the first time EVER that I survived past childhood. Dead at 2 of the measles. Died in childbirth. Dead of chickenpox. Every bloody time, if it’s not one thing it was another. Dysentery. Starvation. War. Always poor peasant parents in some g-dforsaken farming community or nomadic desert tribe, no health care, no clean water. I never survived long enough to learn to walk, much less talk or love. Sheesh! You have no idea how lucky you are to have had these romantic blessed lives or rich adventure behind you. For me it’s been one infectious disease after another. Enough to make me want to give up on this whole wheel of karma altogether!” Somehow, though, it doesn’t ever endear me to the true believers. 😉

  26. I generally ask them to work it out. Star signs determine personality (among other things), right? So a skilled astrologer should be able to get to know me and from that work back to the star sign. My favorite is the ‘witch’ that took eleven tries and followed by “Oh yes, I thought you were a Libra”. If people didn’t actually make life-changing decisions based on it it would be funny.

  27. I get into a lot of these arguments. Mostly, I try to focus on the ones that really matter: vaccines aren’t a conspiracy, climate change is real and dangerous, etc.

  28. I guess I’m in the wrong place here, cause I do believe that there is something else out there. Why? because so many weird things happen to me that the chances of it being random are so small as to be nonexistent. For example, you used the word ‘Whackaloon’ in your blog post, I have never even heard this word before, but today twice, once here and once on a TV show I had Tivo’d ‘Eli Stone’, weird. Another example, a while back I was walking into a hotel (on business – I was doing some balloon decor), it was the fist time in that hotel in over 6 months. On the way through the door I bumped into a guy coming out, he turned out to be on his mobile, listening to the engaged tone on my office phone, as I bumped into him, that kinda freaked me out.
    And don’t get me started on accupuncture 🙂
    Good Luck

  29. Sometimes the simplest and most straightforward answer works the best. Whenever I’m asked my sign, I simply say, “Skeptic.”

  30. My response to “What’s your sign?”: “The seventies called and they want their line back.”

  31. On the question of “my sign” I usually respond “you know me well enough, you tell me what sign I am”. It usually takes around seven guesses before they guess it at which point they say “I knew it”.
    My main mission as a skeptic is to ensure my kids think about things as rationally as possible. If I can achieve that (so far, so good) then anyone else I “infect” is a bonus.

  32. FWIW, the estimate is that almost 120 Billion people have lived on the planet at some point.
    I never answer questions like the astrology ones directly. I’ll point them to something else that contradicts their belief and ask them to reconcile it. Like:
    So how is it that a planet billions of miles away influences you more than the magnetic and electrical energy from the high-tension lines (that you believe cause cancer)? And why does my Western astrological chart tell me that I’m a completely different person than my Vedic or Chinese or Kabbalistic chart?
    Silly humans.

  33. I love this post. I have trouble like this all the time because my family is very religious. Most of the time I try not to step on their toes about it, but this article gives me encouragement and a few rounds of snark to use next time.
    Thank you. 🙂

  34. I usually respond, “Uranus. Do you know there’s a ring around Uranus? It’s true, it was discovered back in the 1960s, you know, the Age of Aquarius?”
    Jeff Corey

  35. Thanks for posting on this topic. Several years ago after finding that I was having trouble staying friends with most people I met, I finally and belatedly decided that I’m not morally obligated to tell anyone my opinion about anything. It’s the other side of freedom of speech — not only do I have the right to speak, but I also have the right to shut the f*** up if I choose to do so. And so that’s what I do.
    I may nod, say “uh huh” or at most “that’s interesting” if absolutely necessary in order to be minimally polite, but otherwise I say nothing. Most people who know me well have figured out that when I say nothing, it’s usually because I think the person I’m speaking to is nuts. But since I do listen politely, they can’t claim that I’m being rude. It’s surprising — and wonderful — how quickly even the most enthusiastic promoters loose steam once they realize that you are absolutely not going to engage them in anything resembling a real conversation. Most people change the subject within 5 minutes or so.
    Every now and then I run into someone so self-centered that he/she doesn’t notice that I haven’t said anything in 30 minutes. When I discover someone like this, I make a mental note to avoid him/her in future. Trust me on this one — you do not need “friends” who can talk for 30 minutes straight without noticing that you haven’t said anything. Not unless you really want to spend the rest of your life giving free psychoanalysis to people who don’t know you exist, anyway.

  36. My usual response to the “What sign are you?” is,
    “I’m a Pyrex”
    “A Pyrex??”
    “Yes, I was a test tube baby”

  37. I always opt for another option – call it Option 5.
    5. Calmly say you don’t really believe in astrology. If they pursue the topic further, explain politely, in a non-preachy way, why there just isn’t evidence to support astrological claims. Don’t try to convert them to your Grand Theory of Skepticism. Just respond to their questions. If they’re not interested, or it gets awkward – fine! Just change the subject.
    Admittedly, this mostly works for New Age-y claims – I feel more comfortable dismissing astrology or feng shui than, say, Christianity. When it comes to religion, I mostly remain quiet, unless I know the person really well.

  38. Badly need your help. I love being married. It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.
    I am from Verde and learning to read in English, give please true I wrote the following sentence: “Employers match your sum; against their job openings to discover if you be a good fit.”
    Regards 🙁 Bill.

  39. …my response was, “Sweetie, you had a hallucination. You paid a ridiculous sum of money to have a hallucination. You can get a bag of ‘shrooms for a tenth of what you just spent, and had enough cash left over to buy new shoes, too!”
    A better response would have been, “How do you know it was real?” The spirit of scientific inquiry is driven by curiosity and observation. Skepticism means evaluating evidence on it’s merit. By making an assertion about hallucinations, you’re exhibiting as much “faith” as any faith healer.
    If you are curious, there is indeed objective evidence supporting the validity of out-of-body experiences. Look it up. If you want to keep an open mind…well, that’s the tricky part. Because frankly, no matter how skeptical you try to be, you’re subject to the same biases, irrational beliefs and assumptions that all humans are…including your loopy friends.
    If you and I both conduct rigorous experiments, and both get the same consistent results, we have not necessarily proven anything objectively — except that we both share a common, equally subjective frame of reference.

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