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Incomplete Nature [Hardcover]

Terrence W Deacon
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Book Description

Oct. 25 2011 0393049914 978-0393049916 1
Terrence W. Deacon offers radical new explanation of how life and consciousness emerge from physics and chemistry. As physicists work towards completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The "Theory of Everything" that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what we are. These most immediate and incontrovertible phenomena are left unexplained by the natural sciences because they lack the physical properties-such as mass, momentum, charge and location-that are assumed to be necessary for something to have physical consequences in the world. Deacon argues that this is an unacceptable omission. We need a "theory of everything" that does not leave it absurd that we exist.& #8232; Incomplete Nature begins by accepting what other theories try to deny: that, although mental contents do indeed lack these material-energetic properties, they are still entirely products of physical processes and have an unprecedented kind of causal power that is unlike anything that physics and chemistry alone have so far explained. Paradoxically, it is the intrinsic incompleteness of these semiotic and teleological phenomena that is the source of their unique form of physical influence in the world. Incomplete Nature meticulously traces the emergence of this special causal capacity from simple thermodynamics to self-organising dynamics to living and mental dynamics and it demonstrates how specific absences (or constraints) play the critical causal role in the organisation of physical processes that generate these properties.

 The book's radically challenging conclusion is that we are made of these specific absences-such stuff as dreams are made on-and that what is not immediately present can be as physically potent as that which is. It offers a figure/background shift that shows how even meanings and values can be understood as legitimate components of the physical world.

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A profound shift in thinking that in magnitude can only be compared with those that followed upon the works of Darwin and Einstein. --Robert E. Ulanowicz, author of A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin"

About the Author

Terrence W. Deacon is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emergence: how mattering happens Dec 31 2011
By Gary Fuhrman TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you have a deep desire to understand how life emerged from a nonliving material universe, and how sentience emerged from life, and human-style consciousness from sentience, then this book is for you. Deacon deploys the full range of concepts which have already been developed by writers such as Charles S. Peirce, Gregory Bateson, Maturana and Varela, Ilya Prigogine, and Stuart Kauffman to explain how physical principles can lead to biological principles and thence to the realm of psychology and even spirituality. But rather than merely summarize these contributions and add his own, Deacon builds his account of emergence from the ground up, beginning with the basic question: How is it that we find ourselves in a universe where things and actions have meaning and value for us, where intentions can make a physical difference? In the course of rethinking this kind of question, he fills in many of the gaps left open by previous accounts, and thus tells us a more complete and lucid story of emergence than anyone has done before -- which is ironic in a way, in view of his conclusion that living beings are radically incomplete, and consciousness emerges from this incompleteness.

Some of us are content to fend off this kind of question with the belief that the Creator's purposes preceded the creation, and now pervade it in some mysterious way. But taking purposefulness for granted prevents us from getting to the bottom of it. Deacon appeals to perfectly ordinary experiences, informed by the purely physical concepts of energy and work, to explain how purpose could arise unintentionally -- spontaneously, but not instantaneously. He does find it necessary to introduce some new conceptual tools along the way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute must! April 25 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have little doubt that this book will prove to be a turning point in scholarly understandings of matter, mind, information, embodiment, and communication. Moreover, it is written in such accessible language that highly complex concepts become intelligible to non-experts. I such enjoyed reading and re-reading the book that I am ordering additional copies to give as gifts to friends. Please note that although accessible to wider audiences this is a serious academic book of outstanding rigous/quality; it is not a washed down popular culture treatment of the issues it tackles.
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64 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ingenious Solution to the Mind/Body Problem Jan. 21 2012
By Aaron Rutledge - Published on
"Incomplete Nature" is not an easy book to read. Not only does Deacon have an inclination toward being verbose, but he is also fond of coining neologisms and generally being as enigmatic as possible. That being said, Deacon has a rich and unique understanding of the subject matter, and I believe that those who are willing to take the plunge will be duly rewarded. It's not that all of Deacon's ideas are original (many are not), nor does he communicate his ideas in the clearest manner. The value of Deacon's work is to be found in his unique synthesis of existing ideas from various disciplines including physics, philosophy, chemistry and biology, as well as in his potentially ground-breaking insight into the nature and role of "absence" in the physical universe. Ultimately, his synthesis is built upon the foundational concept of constraint (which, again, is not original to him), which is where I will start my review of Deacon's thought.

What is a constraint? In everyday life we think of constraints as barriers that prevent us from doing things. Our jobs put constraints on what we can do with our time, laws put constraints on what we can do to other people, and so on. The essence of a constraint, then, is a limiting of possibilities. From this definition it follows that constraints tend to force things into patterns or regularities, and without constraints such regularities would only come into existence as vastly improbable anomalies. To take an example from every day life, in the first quarter of every year hundreds of millions of people file their taxes in the United States. Without the constraints placed on us by our country's tax laws, this yearly pattern of behavior would not exist. The same principle applies for micro-physical systems as well. When two physical systems collide they place constraints on each other. When two billiard balls collide, they force each other to change direction. When a heat source (such as a flame) "collides" with a flask filled with water, it forces the water to start boiling, or to put it terms of constraint, the heat prevents the water from doing anything except boiling.

The focal point of the book is ultimately the connection between constraints and emergence. Sometimes when two systems collide the resulting behavior can be highly organized and complex, so much so that it can be said that an entirely novel "entity" has sprung into existence. What started as two separate physical systems each exhibiting their own natural ("orthograde") behavior, when combined, leads to the creation of a "higher-level" dynamical system that exists in its own right with its own set of properties and behaviors that cannot be analyzed in terms of properties of the systems making it up. This new system can then go on to have further interactions with other systems potentially creating still newer dynamical systems with further novel properties and characteristics.

In the vast majority of cases interactions between systems are destructive rather than constructive. When two billiard balls collide a novel complex system is not brought into existence. In fact, if the balls collide hard enough they'll actually just destroy each other. However, it has been noted that when certain systems collide under certain circumstances the results can be highly organized and even self-sustaining. Deacon uses the example of boiling water to illustrate how the interaction between two simple systems can lead to unexpected complex behavior. He then discusses autocatalysis, which is a process by which a catalytic reaction creates the very catalyst that initiated the reaction in the first place, and uses it as an illustration of how the combination of simple systems can exhibit an extremely rudimentary form of self-sustenance. From there he goes on to define the minimal requirements for emergence of teleodynamic systems (i.e. natural systems that exhibit a rudimentary level of goal-directed behavior) and provides a rather detailed and extremely fascinating "proof of concept" that shows how a teleodynamic molecular system could arise out of the interaction of non-teleodynamic molecular systems. He then spends several chapters showing how teleodynamic systems are the engine of evolution and information processing, without which neither could exist. Again, I feel that I should mention that much of this discussion is not entirely original to Deacon, though I do believe that the conceptual foundation motivating his discussion of these topics largely is.

One of Deacon's key insight about emergence is that novel systems that arise in emergent interactions are not defined by the materials that they are made out of, but rather by the dynamical properties that they exhibit. As a simple example, consider whirlpools. Whirlpools come into existence when two systems collide, such as when I stir my coffee with a spoon or when rocks impede the flow of water in a stream. A whirlpool can form in any liquid, be it water or mercury or even air. Therefore, "whirlpools" cannot be said to be made out of anything in particular. Whirlpools are an abstract "type" rather than a concrete instance that can become manifest in many different physical systems. And yet, in the absence of any physical systems, whirlpools could never exist. So in Deacon's view, constraints help define abstract entities. Just because whirlpools are not made of anything does not mean they are not real (i.e. nominalism is false). Nor is it the case that whirlpools exist "out there" in a Platonic realm (i.e. traditional realism is false). Rather, whirlpools and other abstractions are defined negatively in terms of what is not manifested in in the interaction of physical systems (i.e. what is constrained). It is precisely that which is constrained that defines abstractions of all kinds.

So how does this all relate to the mind? In the last paragraph we noted that constraints could lead to the emergence of new phenomena that exist at a level that is independent of the materials from which they are made. Such phenomena are not equivalent to the substances in which they are manifested, and yet they can only exist by taking form in some substance. Kind of sounds like the relationship between mind and body, doesn't it? And that is Deacon's thesis in a nutshell, that the mind is the result of a long, hierarchical chain of constraints in the interaction of various levels of emergent physical systems.

So in Deacon's view, consciousness really exists and has genuine causal efficacy in the physical universe. However, consciousness is not a physical "entity" in the way that an an electron or a proton is. Consciousness, along with information and all other abstractions, are not composed of matter and energy. In fact, they are not composed of anything at all. Rather they are the "absences" generated by constraints imposed on dynamical systems in the course of their interactions with one another. Though they are not themselves physical, they could not exist outside of the context of physical reality. The genius of this account is that finds a causal role in the world for things "not present" in a physical sense, and does so without resorting to the magical, mystical or transcendental. What is absent (or constrained) in physical systems turns out to be equally, if not more important than what is physically present.

So what is the upshot to all of this? Can we have a science of absences in the same way that there is a science of presences (i.e. physics, chemistry, etc)? Deacon is very vague on this point. He seems to think that he has laid the theoretical foundations for such a science, but he does very little illustrate the practical implications. One implication that does seem clear however, is that we should stop expecting to find an explanation of higher order sentience by looking at the micro-scale behavior of neurons. While neurons certainly exhibit some form of low-level sentience, the global sentience of human experience must be analyzed at a level higher than that of the behavior of neurons. The principle of emergence applies just as equally to sentient systems as it does to non-sentient systems. In other words, a sentient dynamical system could very well be the emergent manifestation of the dynamical interaction of lower-level sentient systems. And yet, the sentience of larger system is not identical to and cannot be analyzed in terms of the sentience of the systems that compose it, though it could not exist apart from it.

Of course, Deacon fleshes out his arguments with much more detail than I could ever place in a book review, and I think his arguments are largely successful if not entirely easy to follow. After reading this book, I feel that the question of "what" the mind is has been given a satisfactory answer, though the questions about "how" it works are still decades in the answering. Either way, this book will be sure to provoke thought in anyone willing to put the time and effort into following it.
143 of 176 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Game Changing As Origin Of The Species Nov. 13 2011
By Taowin - Published on
If it were a snake it would have bit us. It's sitting right under our noses. It's the unifying insight behind the two biggest breakthrough clues toward solving the biggest remaining scientific mystery. Grateful and greatly encouraged by the breakthrough clues we ran with them, ignoring their underlying and unifying insight, the insight that made them both possible. We ignored the underlying insight until Deacon's book, whose 600 exquisitely reasoned and written pages I'll attempt to summarize here.

The biggest remaining scientific mystery is how to close the explanatory gap between the hard and the soft sciences, between energy and information, between physical forces and living desires, between a values-neutral physio-chemical universe and the values-driven bio-psycho-social universe--in a word, between clockwork physics and ever-game-changing life.

In other words, why can we talk about a living creature's intentions, preferences, desires, appetites, adaptations, functions, and purposes, but not a rock, a planet's, or an atom's? What changed, making information and intention cause matter to behave so differently, the way it most obviously does with life? And precisely how do intentions change things?

The two biggest breakthrough clues are evolutionary theory and information theory, and the overlooked underlying insight is about where to look for what life does differently--not in things themselves but in differences, and in particular differences between behaviors that do and don't persist, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Darwin discovered how differential survival, the proliferation of some lineages and the disappearance and absence of others yielded game-changing adaptations over time. Life doesn't require a creator-thing, or an improver-thing in order to evolve. Instead, it requires a difference between the lineages that stay present and the lineages that become absent.

We have embraced Darwin's breakthrough but haven't embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science's greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.

Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there's one. The step-down from 52 to one--the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It's a narrowing of possibility.

Again, though we ran with Shannon's breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.

We are very thing-oriented.

We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we're pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.

We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a "least discordant remainder."

Complexity and self-organization theory provide a breakthrough understanding of such self-organizing processes but again we have run with the breakthrough, forgetting the underlying insight. A whirlpool is not a self-organizing-thing, because it's not a self-thing and it's not, as complexity theory suggests a process, that gravitates toward an attractor-thing.

The key in all of these cases, argues Deacon is to pay attention to the "constraint dynamics" that produce these differences between what remains present what becomes absent. Heating a pizza is "constraint dissipation," the equalization of differences. The formation of a whirlpool is "constraint propagation," the compounding growth of differences, as the more turbulence cancel each other, the less discordant the remainder, which cancels even more turbulence.

Life is a different kind of constraint dynamic in which constraints constraint, maintain and preserve themselves. Deacon shows step by careful step how with life real selves emerge, not as things but as constraint begetting dynamics, producing from its origins, lineages that in self-regeneration, impose new constraints upon their environments.

And in the process Deacon's approach provides a backdoor solution to the problem of free will. It's not how life becomes unconstrained, but how it becomes the source of novel constraint, acting in novel upon the world as it does in us humans especially, but to some extent in all adaptive traits, organisms and lineages.

The burden is on scientists to show in strictly classical physical terms how informational, intentional behavior emerges from energetic behavior, not at the origins of the universe, not at the origin of the human mind, not at the origin of sentient organisms, but at the origin of life. At the origin, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent become constrained in new ways, constraints that create, preserve and maintain themselves, in ways Deacon explains.

Embracing the full implications of the underlying insight that with life there is a change in how differences happen, Incomplete Nature provides a clear step-by-step description of how intentional dynamics really emerge from physical dynamics--how informational dynamics really emerge from energetic dynamics.

Deacon's approach offers an unprecedentedly comprehensive attempt at a physical science of all informational, intentional and meaningful behavior, a theory of everything" that "does not make it absurd that we exist," a theory that might complete our incomplete theories of consciousness by naturalizing in physic science the incompleteness we experience in life's infinitely innovative capacity to produce Darwin's 'endless forms most beautiful.'

In the past century, quantum physics and general relativity expanded physics in two directions, shrinking the status of classical physics to that of a special case operative under special conditions. Deacon's approach suggests that by understanding the physics of intention, the kind of work we living creatures do, we may be on the verge of a third expansion, a physical science of mattering that expands our scientific accounts of what is physically possible to encompass what has heretofore only been physically familiar.

Imagine the consequences for science and society of having a physical explanation for functional, meaningful and conscious behavior no less scientific and accessible than our explanation for lightning. I believe Deacon provides just that.
109 of 136 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mind Did Not Not Emerge Dec 28 2011
By Sevens - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The author talks about - and to some degree - explores self-organization/morphodynamics; he outlines how systems that are (then) far from equilibrium can spontaneously "create themselves" (not a quote). Ever more complex systems pave the way to, are substrates for and mark steps toward life (and mind). Biological cells are pretty complex. To create them, self-sustaining (autocatalytic) systems (constituted by chemical processes) are necessary which need to progress to autogen(ic) status; autogenic status is characterized by the ability of the system (cell) to repair itself and to replicate itself. Essentially, in order to reach the complexity required for life, (gradual) progress has to be made. Each increase in complexity, each increase in sophistication of systems needs to be protected so that it can be build upon. Very much simplified: imagine a self-assembling sandcastle that needs to protect itself against the onslaught of mindless children who are out to destroy it. Mr. Deacon offers concepts for how that could work (not for sandcastles).

However, while he discusses all sorts of things (prominently: complexity theory, self-organization/morphodynamics, thermodynamics, teleodynamics, intentional/ententional [the latter a term he creates] phenomena, information theory and emergence) it does not converge into progress. At least not to me.

Ententional phenomena (elements that are not directly physically represented, such as purpose and thoughts) seem to be what he assigned a fundamental role to. But a focus on that theme is only present in the book's first half and does not amount to a conclusion, to a new insight, to something to work with.

The focus then shifts to constraints. Constraints prevent things. They cause things to not happen, they cause them to remain absent and to only be what (otherwise) could have been. Incidentally they cause/allow for other, alternative things to happen. (Naturally, they play a role in organization/morphodynamics.) I have a feeling that this doesn't sound like much of a great insight. It wasn't to me. I don't see what can - in respect to the emergence of mind/consciousness - be gained through that, allegedly new, perspective. For one thing, constraints are physically there. They aren't absent/absential features. For another thing, defining things negatively (a banana is a fruit that is not any fruit other than a banana) is not a new invention. I do not see anything resembling the paradigm shift and revolution Mr. Deacon postulates (and the publisher advertises).

In my view, this book doesn't revolutionize the concept of emergence; nor does it revolutionize (or particularly further) the understanding of the human mind. It enlightens few things. But it was interesting to read since it addresses interesting topics (of course that's a subjective assessment -- the second paragraph provides a short list, the first paragraph a minimally detailed example). The author's language could be called convoluted. Nonetheless, he remains modest. His insistence on having outlined something astounding is strange. There's a - let's say small - chance that somewhere in his text an idea is encoded and encapsulated that I could not access with my breadth and level of knowledge. In consequence, I plan to read his previous book (The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain) and, through different authors, to further explore the topics he addresses. The impressions described here are based on having read the full book and are strong enough to warrant a review; I will modify and mark it should I arrive at a new/improved understanding. Criticism is welcome.
96 of 126 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sermon or Argument? Nov. 22 2011
By Lew Mills - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Let's start with my confession: I don't think I get it. So, I could be wrong about this. Now, here's my problem with this book.

I can't tell whether it is an argument or a sermon. As a sermon, it works! Pretty much. It gives you that feeling like "sitting in church, being touched by the sense of something enormous and enigmatic, much larger than yourself." And even if you can't follow all of the citations / scripture that have been recited, it moves you to appreciate something you might not otherwise come around to feel.

But as an argument, it is tough going. Deacon's explanations run through one highly abstract notion to another at reckless speeds. Swooping between evolutionary biology and quantum physics in a few paragraphs, and then back, and then into 19th century philosophy for cover, leaves the reader in a vertiginous delirium. Like a great church service, it feels expansive and uplifting. But has it explained something?

I started out to read this, "just far enough to see if he was making sense." At one third of the way through, I still couldn't tell where it was going. It sort of did make sense, but I decided to bail out for this reason: I didn't think that this style of argument was going to lead to answers that I was interested in. Following his logical path through a dozen twists and turns, all at a dangerously ethereal level of abstraction, was going to leave me with little confidence about where I finally arrived. There were no anchors where I could say, "OK, I'm with you so far, because this makes sense to me." I was just being enjoined to hike along his logic trail for a few more miles before I would see promised sights.

I might come back and finish the book. It was a dazzling voyage. But I want to leave the reader of this review with an alternative, which I think covers nearly the same territory: It's Gregory Bateson's "Mind and Nature." I think the style of that book teaches more, while being less didactic. Also a terrific sermon, Bateson's book really does have all of the pieces in it to arrive to see the sights it promises, with many spectacular views along the way.

Meh? I could be wrong.
27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mind did not emerge either June 3 2012
By James W. - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was excited about the book because it appeared to be one of those books yet to appear, doing three things: carefully laying out the grand challenge (how do we understand the division between living and non-living matters, each with and without meaning, values, and purpose, in terms of known laws of physics and chemistry?), solves the underlying problem on the fundamental level, and look at the consequences and ramifications in terms of our understanding of biological evolution, consciousness, ethics, etc. Schneider and Sagan's 'Into the Cool' is an example of an attempt, in which I think the authors have the very plausible central idea but bungled in the execution.

My enthusiasm waned as I progressed over the chapters, but I did persevere till the end. I have to agree with another reviewer that his writing style is convoluted. Earlier chapters 1-9 are Okay and you may like some of them if you are unfamiliar with the subject matter. An important point is that contrary to common beliefs, Darwinian explanation of natural selection does not solve the problem of what life is, because why organisms strive for survival and reproduction is not clear. Classifying natural processes into homeodynamic (non-organizing), morphodynamic (self-organizing), and teleodynamic (living) ones seems to be a promising idea, if the criteria can be made precise in physical and thermodynamic sense. Morphodynamics involve Benard convection-like emergence of patterns, a reasonable distinction because many well-studied examples of such self-organization now exist. What makes teleodynamic ones different is the central question, which should also explain the emergence of 'values.'

This proposal eventually comes in chapter 10: basically the idea is that it is through a symbiosis of autocatalysis and self-assembly. Autocatalysis amplifies production of chemical species but is transient because of diffusion. Self-assembly can provide containment (think "cell walls") but requires supply of building blocks. They complement each other to form 'autogens.' Whether this is really possible needs to be judged based on physics and chemistry; the author is scant on details: is there a model system of autocatalysis of relevance in metabolism/biochemistry that produces polymeric building blocks? Can one build a proper thermodynamic/kinetic model demonstrating the symbiosis? More importantly, however, the question of how this proposal explains the emergence of values is not made clear. I tried hard to figure out what exactly was being proposed regarding this question in the subsection "The emergence of teleodynamics" of Chapter 10, but all I could suspect was something like this: the two agents of symbiosis do things "for" the other agent. It is this emergence of end-directed nature that we should trace the origin of values to. Please let me know if anyone can do better that I did figuring out what the author is trying to say here. I couldn't help thinking he did not nail this down in his mind either and was just trying to gloss over with long convoluted writings and discussions.

The rest of the book of course hinges on how well this crucial argument has been delivered and bolstered, and needless to say I was disappointed, but the writing style (reminiscent of essays written with length requirements to be fulfilled) didn't help either. I agree with another reviewer that the book reads like sermons, not persuasive arguments. There was only one part I recognized with factual inaccuracy though. He criticizes the gene-centric view and the RNA world theory (the section "The replicator's new clothes") first by replacing RNA with DNA, and then argues RNA sequences without proteins do not constitute information. RNA/DNA are copied by polymerases (not PCR machines), which are normally proteins, but certain RNA sequences can fold and act as polymerases. These RNA sequences are "about" replicating just as modern polymerase genes are, and therefore constitute information. DNAs do not fold so needs to be 'compiled' by mRNA and ribosome into proteins, so they likely evolved as a more stable system of record that requires an overhead. Guess what the compiler (ribosome) is made of: RNAs, because they had to make first proteins when proteins didn't exist yet.
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