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May 20, 2015

My David Letterman Story

I’ve written before (http://www.imponderables.com/archives/001275.php) about how the beginning of my work career coincided with DL’s early network television days. At that time, I was working in the daytime programming department at 30 Rock, but got bumped up to primetime when my boss was axed. One of the great pleasures of working there was being able to watch live feeds from all the studios, and I spent altogether too much time looking at rehearsals for Saturday Night Live, Bryant Gumbel and Bob Costas’s NFL show, and my favorite, the morning David Letterman Show. Not since Steve Allen’s syndicated Westinghouse Show had I seen such an inventive, hilarious talk show. And sometime during the first year of his Late Night, David Letterman displaced my adolescent main squeeze, Soupy Sales, as my all-time favorite TV humorist.

Flash forward five years or so, and my writing career commences. I’m expected to make appearances on radio and television to promote my books. For some reason, while bookstore appearances made me nervous, I was happy doing media interviews, and as a student of popular culture, obsessed with both mediums, I was thrilled to meet and talk to most of my favorite broadcasters in both mediums. As a native Los Angeleno, I was thrilled to talk to my two radio idols, Michael Jackson and Bill Ballance, or to national figures like Regis Philbin, Tom Snyder, Joan Rivers, Martin Short, and Howard Cosell. Although I was on either Good Morning America or CBS Morning Show for every book, the Today Show eluded me. The Today Show was known for selling books. But the show I wanted to get on was David Letterman’s.

And then I got the call. I found out from a staff member of the show that executive producer Rob Burnett was a fan of my books. They were interested in booking me for the show, shortly before Letterman moved to CBS. I got a call from a segment producer and we talked about what Imponderables might work on the show, and less than a week later, I found out from my publicist at HarperCollins that I was booked. In no way was I thinking about this appearance as a career move. I know it sounds pathetic, but what I wanted more than anything was for DL to like me.

If I wasn’t worried about talking to DL, I did obsess about what to wear. I’m most comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, but I knew Letterman preferred guests to dress up. So I did. I wore my best itchy Italian suit and instead of a conservative tie, I went with a pattern that I must have thought was “jaunty” at the time. The same segment producer met me more than an hour before the taping commenced, and I knew it was going to be a long haul, as authors are always on late in the show. We went over the Imponderables that Dave would be asking me about. I had never been asked to role-play like this before, and the producer stopped me many times and reiterated that I try not to be funny, that Dave liked authors to be authors and not be comedians. I knew exactly what he meant, as I had only watched David Letterman every night he had ever broadcast on NBC, but I pointed out that even done in a Tom Poston deadpan, some of the answers were inherently funny. But we hit an impasse. He implored: “Please don’t try to be funny.” I thought: “I know what I’m doing.” But I said: “OK.” I was fine when I walked into 30 Rock, feeling comfortable saying hi to some of the staff I knew from working on other NBC shows in the past. A cameraman I knew from soap operas remembered me and said: “Nice tie. That’ll look great on camera.” Jauntiness rules!

That night, Paul and the band were playing all Rolling Stones songs leading into and out of guest spots, and I remember standing in the wings waiting to go on while the band played a great cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The segment producer had his hands on my shoulders and I’ll never forget the exact words he said: “Have fun, and please: Don’t try to be funny!”

Dave got up from his desk to greet me, and I remember only two things: he had an enormous head, and that he was the only host I can ever remember that not only gave me a firm handshake, but made genuine eye contact. He said to me something bland but welcoming, “Thanks for coming.”

But the first thing he said that the audience could hear was: “What’s the deal with the tie?” The audience laughed. I laughed, as I heard him say this more than once to a sartorial offender. Dave doesn’t do jaunty.

Dave started going off-script immediately. Most hosts are nervous themselves, and are concerned with the logistics of the work. They know when they are on-camera and when they are off-camera, and often give you nothing when there is a one-shot on the guest. Letterman was not like this. Even if he ignored most of the research, he was totally focused, and was generous. I was used to working with comedians, and especially enjoyed being interviewed by Joan Rivers (who I was not particularly a fan of as a comedian) -- her improv background made her listen intently to what a guest was saying, if only to score punchlines. But I loved being a straight man, and Letterman was gracious enough to feed me some straight lines, and to my eternal regret, the producer’s words echoed in my mind: “Please don’t try to be funny!” And to my eternal regret, I didn’t try, even though I knew Letterman wanted me to succeed. The segment went OK but was a little flat. I never watched it, even though I recorded it for posterity -- I knew I could have done better. I saw my tie in the monitor and I had to agree with Dave. It looked horrible.

But here’s the best part. As a viewer, I was obsessed with how Letterman treated his guests during commercial breaks, when he didn’t have to feign interest. I’m used to being ushered out before the next segment, but in this case, it was a musical act, so Dave told me to just stay in the chair. Letterman was in an exceedingly good mood (I am guessing that he had just made the deal to move to CBS to the 11:30 slot). As soon as the commercial started, he leaned over to me and said: “The colors in your tie are going to bleed together.” And then he told me that he enjoyed my appearances on Tom Snyder’s radio show, especially when we talked about broadcasting (as we always did after dispensing with the obligatory talk about my latest book). And then we talked some more about Snyder’s radio show. He was talking as a fan, and this just made me love Letterman more, if it was possible.

Despite any layers of irony, Letterman has always loved broadcasting. I have no doubt that his professions of affection for old-school performers like Regis Philbin, Tom Snyder, Bob & Ray, Howard Stern, etc., is heartfelt. I hope he can appreciate that his fans love him with a similar passion. For me, this is the hardest TV goodbye since the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We may have never become buddies, but I’ll always cherish that commercial break with Dave.

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April 06, 2015

Spice Trends

Chiles are up. Celery salt is down.

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January 16, 2015

Word Dominoes

Imagine a word game without letters, one that requires all the verbal dexterity you can muster. Word Dominoes is that game.

Game play couldn't be simpler. Each domino contains 2 images. One player places two images next to each other, and all players try to come up with a word, title, name, or phrase suggested by the two.

For example, I just pulled two dominoes at random. One was the kind of stick figure drawing of a male used to denote a restroom at public places; the second was of a cow. The turn player (who placed those two dominoes together) might write down "cowboy" to describe these two images. The next person might have written down "cattleman," the next "milkman,"the next, "animal," and the fifth, cowboy."

When it's your turn, you score points by matching as many other players as possible, without matching everyone (in which case you are penalized). If only one other player matches the turn players he or she gets a bonus. In our hypothetical example, the turn player gets one point for every match -- in this case, one. The last player, who matched, scores two rather than one point because she was the only person to match the turn player.

The gameplay is simple but in practice it's a challenging task, especially for the literal-minded. While watching folks play at Words Weekend, some folks were so literal that they would only see "cowboy" for this combination, while others might think of movie and song titles. If we have any criticism of the game, it's a weird target to try to match all but one other player, as the scoring encourages coming up with duller answers than necessary. We prefer the game play of Proclaim, where the highest score is achieved by matching exactly one other player. When we tried switching our house rules, we enjoyed it more.

Word Dominoes is beautifully packaged with a small footprint and sturdy dominoes, and the graphics are appealingly retro-classic. Word Dominoes is a new game, invented by Forrest-Pruzan Creative and distributed by Chronicle Books. It is already a big seller on Amazon, and it deserves to be.

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January 13, 2015

Show Me the Kwan

One shining development in the board game world is that toy companies have abandoned the expense and heft of unnecessary boards, not only saving trees but preventing hernias and shelf congestion. Our third word game, Show Me the Kwan, comes in a handsome carrying case smaller and lighter than most women's pocketbooks.

But the packaging isn't the only thing we like about Show Me the Kwan. We're fond of category game, and this one is different because you have to name words where the key letters are not just in first position, but second or last, as well. Kwan is faster-paced and more challenging than Scattergories, as the video above will show you. It is surprisingly difficult to come up with, say, a word associated with pasta with a second letter of G, especially when your opponents are grabbing other letters and shouting out words.

And there are two other bits of strategy that liven up the game. Some letters are worth more than others, but it is often unclear whether it is better to work on words with harder letters or grab the easier but lower-scoring letters. Also, any player can stop play by announcing "Show Me the Kwan." That player must use any one letter that was rolled in first, second, and last letters to form words that fit the category, you get the point value for all three words plus a bonus. It isn't that hard with most categories to form a Kwan, but it's more tenuous under the stress of play. And while you are working on your Kwan, you aren't busy scoring single words like the other players, and risk scoring zero for your efforts.

Show Me the Kwan is another terrific entry from Griddly Games. You can buy it directly from the manufacturer http://shop.griddlygames.com/product/show-me-the-kwan-case or from Amazon.

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December 08, 2014

Schmovie

When I worked at NBC, one of my stranger tasks was to sit in a room with another programmer and come up with titles for theatrical movies that we had bought. These movies had bombed so badly at the box-office that they might have more commercial appeal if we renamed them so the audience wouldn't recognize them. My colleague Rod and I would brainstorm and start tossing out titles with abandon -- some of them were so ridiculous we couldn't stop laughing.

Playing Schmovie, "The Hilarious Game of Outlandish Films," brought back the same same sense of playfulness and silliness of those brainstorming sessions. You are given a "who" and a "what" card and a movie genre, and your job is to come up with a title to please "the producer" (another player who temporarily assumes Spielbergian-like power).

For example, you might have to come up with the title for a comedy featuring a constipated (what) princess (who). Now each player (or team) tries to come up with a title that will please the producer. It might be a play on words from an existing title ("The Miralax View"), a pun ("Prunestruck"), or randomly goofy ("The Sovereign Obstruction").

Part of the fun is the absolute power of the producer to judge. Somehow, your own contribution always seems the best, but just as in real life, producers come with their own (often bad) taste. But please, no whining!

Schmovie isn't for everyone, but for the folks who love it are passionate. It works best for folks who can laugh at themselves and be silly. Kids are less inhibited and can compete well. You don't need to be a movie expert, just someone who enjoys wordplay. If you have a hard time coming up with answers, then just make something up and write it down -- you'd be surprised how often the last minute flail ends up a winner.

Although as few as three people can play Schmovie (two friends and I had a blast playing), the more the merrier. Schmovie works well with teams, and even combination of singles and teams.

The creators of Schmovie, Sara Farber and Bryan Wilson, run a great Facebook page for Schmovie, where they post a new Schmovie six days a week and commenters compete for glory. Schmovie is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many independent game stores.

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December 05, 2014

KerFlip!

It's December, so that means the annual Will Shortz's Wonderful World of Words just ended, and once again, we played four terrific word games. We especially enjoy supporting the products of independent game companies, who have seen many toy stores close and face an uphill battle placing their wares into big-box stores.

Our group loved to play KerFlip! It's much faster-paced than most anagram games, but there is still strategy involved. All players must form a word from 10-12 common tiles: there are great advantages to be the first to find a word, but slower players might come up with longer and higher-scoring words.

Inventor Damon Tabb has incorporated so many cool design choices:

1. You play the game on the inside of the box.

2. In most rounds of KerFlip!, some tiles are "thrown away" but unused tiles are put back in the bag to be drawn again. To get rid of unwanted tiles you just sweep them the the bottom of the playing area. When you are through, one flip of the box and the tiles are automatically retrieved by in an inner box.

3. The first edition of KerFlip! featured a set of timers. In the second edition, there is only one, and players can choose whether to use the timer or not. Even if you do, only the slowest player is on the clock after the other players have come up with a word, so no one has to look for the sandtimer to empty while trying to play the game.

Kerflip! is easy to learn and bright kids can be competitive with adults, especially if they are fast. There are many more features to the game, well documented by the Watch It Play video above. If you like pure word games, I think you'll love KerFlip!

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October 17, 2014

How To Make Ceviche

Don't forget the love!

[Thanks to John DiBartolo]

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October 07, 2014

God Only Knows

[Thanks to Maggie Wittenburg]

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June 21, 2014

David Letterman: Game Show Host

Mark Evanier, major domo at the estimable blog, News from Me, recently posted a wonderful link to an interview with a very young David Letterman, in which Letterman alludes to hosting a game show:

http://www.newsfromme.com/2014/06/19/todays-video-link-1720/

As it so happens,the game show pilot that Letterman alludes to was shot just before I started working for NBC daytime in New York City, but one of my first duties when I started working in NBC Daytime Programming department was attending the focus group for The Riddlers. Here, minus the Elvira wraparound is what our group of women saw:

At the time, Family Feud was the hottest show in daytime, and the VP of NBC daytime was looking for a comedian who could create the kind of byplay with contestants that Richard Dawson accomplished on a daily basis. I believe we already had a holding deal with Letterman. Everyone knew he was a great talent and game-show hosting was unlikely to be his ultimate gig. Wheel of Fortune and Hollywood Squares were performing reasonably well for us, but Knockout and The New High Rollers were not. Since we were paying Letterman anyway, why not see if he could fulfill a need for us.

I remember how much fun it was to sit on the “police side” of the one-way glass and watch the focus group watching “The Riddlers.” There was a lot of laughter on both sides of the glass. Everyone knew the premise of the show was flimsy: The crucial element would be how much the audience liked the host, and whether Letterman’s wisecracks would be perceived as affectionate witty banter or cruel sarcasm. As much as the audience laughed at Letterman, they were clearly taken aback by Letterman’s banter, especially toward the “civilians” (celebrities were fair game). Combined with research indicating that the gameplay itself generated no interest, The Riddlers was destined for oblivion. But as copies of the pilot circulated around 30 Rock, Letterman’s stock went up rather than down, and helped cement the idea of giving Letterman his morning show.

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June 09, 2014

Does Refrigeration Really Ruin Bread?

Daniel Gritzer, at Serious Eats, has done the research, and here it is.

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April 27, 2014

Do Penguins Have Knees?

The New England Aquarium is a little late to the fair, but the photos are cool.

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February 20, 2014

Why Do We Itch? [Redux]

In my first book of Imponderables, we discussed this weighty question. In the almost thirty years since it was written, the theory that the neural pathways for itching are identical to the ones for pain seems to be degenerating. Now there are scientists doing research and clinics specializing in treating chronic itchiness. The New York Times weighs in...

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February 19, 2014

So You Want To Be a Chef-Owner?

A cautionary tale from one of my favorite chefs, Dave Santos. Here is an interview about the trials and tribulations of surviving in NYC and here's a photo-essay that shows you the kind of hours Dave and his staff work.

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February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day

[Thanks to Peg Bowen]

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January 12, 2014

Carole King: Beautiful

Tonight is the Broadway opening of Beautiful, the musical devoted to the life and songs of Carole King (and once-husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin). Without getting into the merits of the show, which I saw last night, let's just say it makes a strong case for Carole King's brilliance as both a writer and singer.

While searching on YouTube for a video of Maxine Brown's superb performance of "Oh No Not My Baby," I stumbled onto this tantalizing clip of King teaching the song to Merry Clayton, one of the vocalists featured in "20 Feet from Stardom":

And given the death of the great Phil Everly, I wanted to share another classic song she wrote with Howard Greenfield, "Crying in the Rain":

But listen to Carole King's demo of the song, never meant to be released to the public. It' just as moving:

And while we're at it, let's listen to Maxine Brown:

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December 16, 2013

WOW -- World of Words

How appropriate that at our event, The Wonderful World of Words, we played WOW -- World of Words. The fourth and final of the four word games we played has the simplest of rules. If you see this video, you'll be ready to play in under three minutes:

I was worried that the game was so simple that it wouldn't hold the interest of our word sharks, but two tables played the game for close to two hours straight, foregoing the chance to try another of the games. Sometimes simple is good.

WOW is produced by U.S. Games, a specialist in card games. Instead of burdened with a useless board, WOW is small enough to carry in your pocket, so it's a great travel game for word lovers. And the price is right: eight bucks.

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December 09, 2013

Pass-Ack Words

Pass-Ack

Pass-Ack Words, the third of our highlighted word games, is a variant of Password. In Password, the purpose is to give one-word clues to your partner to get him or her to provide a supplied answer. In Pass-Ack Words, all the clues you give partner must be chosen from a provided list. Doesn't sound very challenging, does it?

It might, except for a twist. The clue-givers are not sending clues to their partners, but the opponents. The challenge is to offer clues that won't help your opponent find the right answer, but might help your partner.

Let's use an actual card from the game as an example. Let's say Apple and Orange are playing against Tuna and Mackerel. Apple and Tuna see that the first answer is OIL, and they are provided with 9 clues:

Baron
Corn
Grease
Motor
Olive
Paint
Slick
Snake
Well

Apple might decide that there is no way that his opponent, Mackerel, can guess OIL from "corn," but has to consider whether combined with any second clue, whether Orange could guess it properly when it is her turn. At any time, the guessers can get all the given clues read back to them, but sometimes the laundry list just leads to confusion. Just imagine that you have received these clues: corn; paint; well; baron; snake. Not so easy to guess OIL, is it?

Pass-Ack Words is a terrific party game, suitable for the whole family because the clue list makes it easier for kids to compete. Pass-Ackwards is designed for four players, although you could accommodate a few more by adding a guesser or two to each team. You can buy Pass-Ack Words directly from R & R Games R&R Games, or the usual online sources.

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December 04, 2013

Oddly Obvious

Imagine the clue to a crossword entry is: "A cow with no legs." Or another clue is: "A turtle without a shell." Any answers come to mind? Would you be confident? When you are solving a crossword, you usually have crossing answers providing some of the correct letters.

But what if there were a game that presented crossword-like clues but the answers were right in front of your face? That's the premise of Oddly Obvious, the second game that we played at Will Shortz's Wonderful World of Words last month. Of the four board games we played, Oddly Obvious was the game I was most worried about. Would having the answers provided render the game too easy for hardcore word gamers?

I needn't have worried. It turns out that having the answers provided led to many laughs, intense time pressure, and even a genuine challenge. The rules are simple enough that you can be up and running within a couple minutes. Oddly Obvious is great fun.

The answers to our puzzlers. A cow with no legs is "ground beef." And a turtle with no shell is "homeless."

Here's a video review with a recommended rule change:


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October 31, 2013

Dabble

Every November, a group of word fanatics congregate at Mohonk Mountain House for Will Shortz’s Wonderful World of Words weekend. On Saturday afternoons, we play word games, and the group that selects what we play tries to find newish word-oriented games, especially from smaller game companies. With the loss of many independent toy stores and even chain stores, such as Toys R Us, it is harder than ever for consumers to find new games, ones that the big box stores won’t carry.

Now that the holidays are nigh, I thought I’d write a little about the four games we are playing. First up: Dabble, from INI, LLC. The rules to Dabble are so simple that you can be up and playing within a few minutes. You pick 20 tiles with one letter and point value on each. With these tiles, you need to make exactly one 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5- and 6-letter word. If you succeed, it’s better to have put the higher scoring tiles in the longer words.

Dabble was invented by a man in his 80s, George Weiss, who is beyond cool:

The board game is not brand new, but the app is, and I’m addicted. There are other apps on my iPad, I think, but I haven’t been using them lately. The point values on the tiles make Dabble more versatile than Text Twist and similar anagram games. Once you get proficient at finishing all 5 required words, you can try to garner higher scores and faster times. The app will keep track for you. Want to challenge your friends via the app? No problem. Care to try the game free on Facebook? Why not?

What separates both the board game and the app from the competition is its elegance and simplicity. There are usually elements even in games I love that I would like to change. Dabble is a pure word game, without gimmicks and doodads, one that is easy to play, but difficult to conquer, and even harder to put down.

[Dabble is available directly from INI, or Barnes & Noble stores, Amazon and B&N online. The app is available from the usual sources in all popular formats.]

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October 21, 2013

Urination Times in Mammals

I've never thought of it before, but Slate informs us that mammals tend to urinate for about the same amount of time -- 21 seconds. They take a stab at an answer too, with a not particularly compelling answer.

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October 14, 2013

Joni Mitchell Rocks!

[Thanks to Sal Nunziato and Steve Simels]

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September 02, 2013

A Startling Scientific Discovery

Study: People Far Away From You Not Actually Smaller

[Thanks to Michael Feldman]

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July 31, 2013

Google Whiz Visualizes Beach Boy Harmonies

Featuring the vocals-only mix of the Beach Boy's You Still Believe in Me from their masterpiece, Pet Sounds.

Here's the original Wired article.

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June 17, 2013

Lisa Fischer

Here is the stunning Lisa Fischer, featured in 20 Feet from Stardom, singing her Grammy-award winning hit live:

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June 14, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

My review of 20 Feet from Stardom?

GO SEE IT! ASAP!

This documentary about the great backup singers of rock and roll opened today. In the next few days, I'll feature some videos of the featured singers. We'll start out with the best known singer, Darlene Love, one of the great singers in rock history. Here she is last year, in her annual Christmas celebration with David Letterman:

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May 30, 2013

Prancercise

The solution to all your fitness needs.

[Thanks to Peg Bowen]

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May 09, 2013

So You Want To Move to New York City?

Maybe rent a room?

Maybe not.

[Thanks to Virginia Parker]

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April 04, 2013

RIP, Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert, just days after announcing a recurrence of cancer, died of the disease today. The tributes and obits are pouring in, including a fine one from his newspaper home.

A quick search indicates that I've posted about Ebert more than ten times on this blog, including links to some wonderful video from a happier time.

On a personal level, I'll always feel indebted to the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic for answering an Imponderable for my first book, and a sensitive one at that: Why did Gene Siskel get top billing over Roger for At the Movies?

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February 28, 2013

How a 'New Girl' Script Gets Made

TV critic Alan Sepinwall visits the set of New Girl to see how a rough draft is re-worked and re-worked and re-worked.

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February 25, 2013

Celebrity Heights

It is somehow comforting to know that I am taller than Sting and shorter than Kyle Chandler. How about you?

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