Archive for the ‘Philosophy of science’ Category

Gravity, Relativity and Quantum experiences: searching for a consensus.

“Quantum Mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One…I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.”

– Albert Einstein
(in a reply to one of Max Born’s Letters in 1926)

Every time the word ‘quantum’ is used to imply some surrealistic idea, I quiver with apprehension. So much has been said about the so called ‘uncertainty’ lying deep within it, the ‘nonlocal’ connivance of the non-classical world and the weird notions of ‘probability’ and ‘wave function collapse’ that the shroud of mystery around the theory thickens by the moment.

There are countless half-boiled hypotheses that claim to link animal consciousness and the concept of ‘soul’ to principles of quantum physics run across the information highway and a casual mind is easily attracted to one or the other.

Despite being the most validated theory of all physics, Quantum Mechanics is still viewed by many as something that essentially needs adjustments in order for it to conform to our common-sense view of the classical world. But there is this larger majority of physicists and cosmologists out there who are convinced that it’s our classical world-view that needs revision – the world wide struggle for a unified theory of the forces tell the tale. Roger Penrose, celebrated mathematician and theoretical physicist, belongs to the first group. He suspects that the cause of failure in unifying the theories lies in a perspective difference.

QM and Relativity

There are four fundamental forces in the universe: electromagnetism; the strong and the weak nuclear forces, and finally gravity. General Relativity attributes gravity to the effect of matter on space-time fabric. Imagine a stretched sheet of rubber to represent the fabric of spacetime and a few iron balls placed on it to represent stars and planets and other massive celestial bodies. The dents made on the rubber sheet by the iron balls can be regarded as the geometric alterations caused by the presence of matter in spacetime. A smaller iron ball when set to roll over this sheet, moves uniformly forward until it falls into one of the deeper dents caused by larger iron balls than itself. Analogously, the orbits of celestial bodies are due to a curved or bent space surrounding the larger body. This effect is ‘gravity’, says Einstein.
Quantum Mechanics (QM) and Quantum Field Theory (QFT) have been able to explain all the fundamental forces except Gravity in terms of particle interactions; the Standard Quantum model of fundamental forces considers gravity as an attractive force mediated by the exchange of gravitons.

“Although this tension between relativity and quantum mechanics may be mostly dormant at the energies that are currently experimentally accessible, there are situations where the interaction between the matter fields and quantum fields and the gravitational field becomes relevant. For example, physically realistic models of the universe predict an initial singularity. At this singularity, classical physics breaks down and it is assumed that a quantum theory of gravity, i.e. a theory combining general relativity with quantum physics, will be necessary to probe the physics of the early universe.”

Nevertheless, both Quantum Mechanics and Relativity give excellent testable predictions and are widely accepted as useful but unproven and ‘incomplete’ models of some deeper reality.

Penrose’s views

Penrose derives his inspiration from Einstein, who believed that a theory incorporating the relativistic nature of gravity and the non-classical nature of Quantum world data would be possible only by correcting Quantum mechanical notions rather than Relativity. Einstein was definitely disturbed by the anti-relativistic findings arising in the quantum scheme of things and the indeterminacy popularly called Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
But Penrose is more bothered with two things about QM; in fact the first one takes root from the second:

The first is about the ability of a quantum particle to be simultaneously present at two different locations, even though larger chunks of matter don’t seem to do that despite being made up of the very same quantum particles. Simply speaking, why is it that an electron, in the famous double slit experiment, appears to be present simultaneously at two places, while a person or a chair does not appear to do that? The second is about taking the ‘mathematical’ process of wave function collapse (‘State-vector reduction’) for real.

Collapsing Wave functions: real or mathematical?

A photon is emitted from a source in the direction of a receiver. On its way a half silvered mirror is kept. In a non-mathematical language, we can say that the probability of the photon passing through the half-silvered mirror and hitting the receiver is 50% and the probability of it reflecting off the mirror is also 50%. But going through the real mathematical representation denoting the states of the photon, a subtle but relevant problem is revealed: The probabilities of whether the photon hits the receiver or not spring up only after the photon encounters the mirror. Before hitting the mirror, nothing can be said about the route of the photon in terms of probabilities; the photon is said to be in a combination of states – “it will pass through the mirror” and “it will bounce off the mirror”. (Other situations can also be imagined up, where more than just these two states could exist.).
This kind of “combination states” are not just products of theoretical experiments, they have been demonstrated for real in countless occasions ; the most intriguing being that of the double slit experiment, where a single photon is seen to pass thru two adjacent slits simultaneously!

The real fate is decided after the interaction of the photon with the mirror. What is “spooky” about this interaction is that only after this can we calculate the probable fates mathematically. The generally accepted interpretation of this scenario is that the mirror represents a part of the experimental apparatus and the interaction of the photon with the mirror is equivalent to a “measurement process” which causes the split-up states (fates) of the photon to abruptly collapse into a single state. Before “measurement” there is only “it will pass through the mirror” and “it will bounce off the mirror”. After measurement there is either “it will pass through the mirror” or “it will bounce off the mirror”. The interaction of the photon with the mirror resulting in collapse of split-states into a single state is termed “decoherence”.

This view, called the Copenhagen Interpretation or formerly, the Bohr-Heisenberg interpretation, (after its most famous patrons Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg) is more of a colloquial representation of a mathematical statement. Bohr himself had suggested on many occasions that physical properties can be meaningfully ascribed to the object only in relation to some actual experimental results. He also held that the quantum scheme of wave equations is a mere symbolic representation that is useful for making predictions and it doesn’t directly depict any aspect of reality whatsoever. Note that this is starkly different from the widely held misconception that Copenhagen Interpretation demands a conscious observer to perform the act of measurement for the “mysterious” collapse of states to occur (the “collapse” part was actually a later addition by John von Neumann)

Penrose acknowledges that his approach is that of a realist – one who maintains that all physical theories worded in mathematics correspond to some aspect of objective reality out there, however small the accuracies of experimental observations be.
The standard interpretations of the quantum experiments do not say what exactly happens during decoherence; not even in theory. Penrose finds “decoherence”, a real process where relativistic gravity could come into action. Also, he believes that the experimental evidences of finding the same quantum particle (electrons, photons etc) at two different places should be a real phenomenon – something which happens out there.

His approach can be summarized in a very simplified form as below:

General Relativity proposes that if a piece of matter exists in a region of spacetime for a sufficiently long duration, the geometry of that region of spacetime is altered accordingly and gravity is a result of this alteration of spacetime (recall the iron balls and rubber sheet analogy).

It follows therefore that if an electron or any quantum particle really exists simultaneously in two regions of spacetime, then each of the duplicates should possess mass and therefore alter the geometry of its regional spacetime, resulting in gravitational fields of their own.

But to keep one duplicate of the particle away from the gravitational influence of the other requires energy. The interacting gravitational fields destabilize the split-states causing them to “decay” (collapse) into one or the other classical alternative.

If the whole system is left totally undisturbed by other environmental factors, then the split-up (duplicated) state of the quantum particle will remain stable for a time period inversely proportional to the energy needed to prevent the gravitationally induced decay.
This decay process is conveniently named Objective Reduction (OR for short), meaning that the process is not an artifact of the ‘act of observation’ or the ‘experimental apparatus’. Thus gravity is nicely woven into the scheme of quantum experiences.

As we can see, to take the ‘wave-collapse’ concept in the literal sense of the word or as a symbolic representation of reality is a matter of choice, so long as we can generate mathematical expressions that predict experimental outcomes. And for a physical theory, that’s what matters the most.

The important thing to note is that, as Penrose pointed out in several later interviews and lectures, in most occasions, mass movements in the environment itself result in (gravitation induced) collapse of states. The decay-time relationship with gravitational self-energy works perfectly well only in situations where the particle under observation is kept isolated from all environmental influences.
Thus as per Penrose’s interpretation, every piece of matter irrespective of macroscopic or microscopic state, can exist simultaneously in two or more split states like the electron in the slit experiments. What causes them to be seen as a single deterministic mass in our classical world is gravity.

Where does consciousness and mind come into all this? How do brain cells utilize spacetime to generate something as bewildering as ‘consciousness’?


More of that in part 3 of Quantum Consciousness: How physics changes the way we look at mind.

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Non-computability – Gödel, Turing machines and brain


This article is a subsection of the main article
How physics changes the way we look at mind

The current (and almost universally) accepted view on consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon arising from the complex interconnections and communication among neurons. Artificial Intelligence researchers latch their idea of a robotic equivalent of the brain on this concept of consciousness. Basically they believe that the creation of an ‘intelligent’ processor is only hindered by the tedious job of writing out algorithms powerful and complex enough to mimic brain’s functions.

But is that optimism farfetched?

Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem doesn’t actually set some arbitrary limit to the process of acquiring knowledge through human or machine effort. And Penrose doesn’t say it does either. The Incompleteness Theorem is cited by Penrose as an example of how human brain can go beyond a computer or a robotic processor brain. Computers and Artificial intelligence devices function on the basis of ‘formal logic’ based programs (or algorithms for short) that tell them to deduce or derive results in series of logical steps. Penrose argues that such an operation can be used to trick the computer easily so that the computer will soon start contradicting its own logic and break down presumably.

Take for example the simple old puzzle:

If the barber shaves all those who do not shave themselves then who shaves the barber?

The simple tit-for-tat reply that pops into your mind now may be: Another barber!

But that answer is too tricky for a computer to arrive at, if it follows logical algorithms, even though a twelve year old can really “see through” the puzzle’s logic. And this is what Gödel’s theorem basically says. Rudy Rucker, in his book Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite, has simplified Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem through an excellent example in a stepwise manner.


Think over this:

  1. Someone introduces Gödel to a UTM, a machine that is supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly answering any question at all.
  2. Gödel asks for the program and the circuit design of the Truth Machine. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely long. Call the program TMP for Truth Machine Program.
  3. Now, Gödel writes out the following sentence: “The machine constructed on the basis of the TMP will never say that this sentence is true.” Call this sentence G for Gödel. Note that G is equivalent to: “Universal Truth Machine will never say G is true.”
  4. Now Gödel laughs and asks the Truth Machine whether G is true or not.
  5. If the Truth Machine says G is true, then “Universal Truth Machine will never say G is trueis false. If “Universal Truth Machine will never say G is trueis false, then G is false (since G = “Universal Truth Machine will never say G is true). So if the Truth Machine says G is true, then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.
  6. We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So “UTM will never say G is true” is in fact a true statement. So G is true (since G = “UTM will never say G is true”).

And having tricked the Truth Machine, Gödel triumphantly declares: “I know a truth that Truth Machine can never utter,”



You may have a hunch: “isn’t this a problem of the language we use?”
The answer is NO.
The original incompleteness theorem is mathematically worded. The above simplified version using linguistic conundrums is just an abstraction of the real one. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is a real problem that is faced by artificial intelligence researchers at least on theory level; the fact that we have not been able to attain any sort of complex thinking in machines doesn’t preclude incompleteness theorem from interfering in these matters.

Roger Penrose suggests that the ability of human brain / conscious brain to “go out of the labyrinth of axioms and find the truth outside” is due to the quantum nature of consciousness. He suggests that human consciousness may depend on some new, as yet unknown, quantum physics that has significant role in the neuronal processes of the brain.

More of that in the coming sections of How physics changes the way we look at mind.

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The previous article, Why Should Darwinism be Capitalistic?, invited criticism from many of my ‘evolutionist’ friends. Some were against the anti-deterministic underpinnings of the article – they were reluctant to come to terms with the ‘Nature via Nurture’ hypothesis. Others were against my suggestion that Darwinism can be supportive of Socialism rather than capitalism. What most of them complained about was my support of the job and educational reservations to weaker sections of the society.

So here are some clarifications on the issue. These are excerpts from email replies, orkut messages and internet chats. They represent my attempts to detail the:

  • the influence of environment on gene expression (nature via nurture).
  • the use of neo-darwinian evolutionary principles to fight nature’s selection forces.
  • the concept of all-round social upliftment for maximum expression of best genes.
  • the necessity of social reservation and proactive steps to uplift the backward sects of each population.

An analogy to ponder over

Imagine, two pots, with randomly allocated seeds from the same batch. The two plots have equivalent genetic potential. One plot received fertilizer (an environmental condition), the other pot receives no fertilizer. The average height (i.e. intelligence) differences between each pot will be due to environmental differences (fertilizer), however the height differences amongst individual plants within a pot are due to genetic differences (assuming similar conditions throughout the pot).
Which set of plants have a better chance of disseminating their progeny..?
Which set of plants can ensure that most of their “good” genes are transferred to the next generation ?
Progeny of which set of plants are more likely to survive with the better genes ?


The gene for higher intellect (henceforth called “smart-gene”) definitely appears in a family/clan/race as a result of mutation and random chance, as evolutionary laws say.

Let me elaborate this:

A child named ‘Z’ in a family of traditional cobblers in India in 800 AD gets a few smart-genes. He has this constant urge to learn, enjoy philosophy or engage in intellectual pursuits. But the strict caste system and social practices of untouchability forbids him from following his heart. Even his family which doesn’t care about education is against his wishes and the boy is compelled to follow his father’s profession, marry somebody from his own caste and spend his life in the way, the strict society wanted him.

His wife, who is from a plain ordinary cobbler family, has no smart-genes. Now our “index” case of smart-gene-mutant is Mr.Z, who has very very small chance of passing his mutant smart-genes to his son or daughter. But still, let us simply suppose the genes were fortunately inherited by Mr.Z’s son. But even then, the son too has very little chance of passing that to the third generation because of the same socioeconomic set up that prevented his father from achieving his own dreams. If he defies the society, the family will soon be destroyed even before a third or fourth generation of children is born.

What if Z’s daughter is the one who inherits the smart-genes? The prospects are worse for a woman in such a rigidly hierarchical and casteist society!!

As long as the same socioeconomic conditions prevail around the family, the smart-genes find less and less chance of inheritance.

Note that there is no inheritance of acquired characters here.
The smart-genes simply rose as a result of “random aimless mutation” as Dawkins often puts it.
The only factor that environment strongly influences, is its chance of being inherited into the subsequent generation.
This situation is a kind of ‘man-made’ negative selection.
The same way we weed out poor yielding poultry or sheep from a farm.
The same way dogs, which are epitomes of servitude and fidelity, were selectively evolved from wolves

Now consider the same situation in a modern liberal Western society like the USA.

The modern Mr. Z, who inherits the smart-genes, takes a scholarship exam, pursues a college education, research in Duke, become a top rated cardiologist in North Carolina and marries the daughter of his research guide. Now his children have because his wife is likely to have the same in her gene pool too. Now, since his wife’s family has a history of intellectual members, the odds of her transmitting the smart-genes to the next generation are also higher. In whichever way you look, Mr. Z’s progeny will have greater chance of inheriting their parents’ smart-genes.

The atmosphere, in which their children grow up, will be stimulation to their genetic potentials. Better nutrition, visuo-spacial challenges of the city and top class education bring the best out of those old smart-genes.

These children, who seek out their own kind (Dawkin’s “green beard effect”) in the society, marry from families of similar or higher intellectual status. The odds of their successive generations becoming smarter improve with every generation.

Note that our Mr. Z of the21st century American city not only faces zero resistance from society but enjoys the fruits of liberty, equality and government’s financial aid in the form of grants, job reservations, scholarships, insurance etc.

This situation is beautifully condensed in the very famous FLYNN EFFECT.

Dr. James Flynn, after doing a meta-analysis of many Western IQ studies done over generations, plotted it against time, and found that average IQ scores increase with generations in the Western societies.

The reason for this is not because the earlier generations had no smart-genes. It’s just that modern western societies are more liberal & conducive for the better expression of these genes to their fullest potentials.

They permit mix up of all kinds, resulting in a global improvement of intellect rather than focal areas of brain development.

That is the most important thing about supporting reservation and other social initiatives to uplift all the sections of population rather than letting natural selection take its toll.

A short verbal ability test administered to about 12,500 adult American Blacks and whites between 1974 and 1994 support this effect of social influence. It clearly shows a narrowing of the IQ differences over recent years – a telltale sign of positive influence on gene expression.

Defying Natural Selection

It may seem strange that in highly competitive meritocratic modern societies, natural selection actually has very little toll on the individual.

If you look deeper, you will see the reason.

With the general improvement in intelligence, human societies progressively have (and will) become altruistic. It’s the selfish gene’s covert strategy to promote the survival of its own kind.

Our hospitals, medical equipments, diagnostic gadgetry, ever expanding array of drugs, humanitarian organizations, peace organizations, trade partnerships etc are towering examples of this altruism and a blatant defiance of Natural Selection.

I am not forgetting the resurgences in imperialist notions especially in recent war histories, but those can be dispensed as the old animal instinct still refusing to go off the skin.

Once the concept of “Nation” and “Nationality” wither away in the future, such notions will have no meaning at all. And by that time hominids, as a species will have something else to fight against…!

Reservation Issue

The whole meaning of reservation, scholarships and grants is to promote the maximal expression of the good genes in these oppressed castes and sects. For that, first of all, there should be some potentially smart genes that can be worked upon to be fully expressible. This means, we can’t expect the whole of those backward castes to ascend to an equal stance with the rest of the society within a very short period of time, simply from affirmative actions. Affirmative actions should essentially be followed by two things if it’s to yield rapid results: # 1) Positive change in social psyche, in accepting them and acknowledging their contributions. # 2) General increase in equality and opportunities for all.

That’s when we can claim that the society has become truly meritocratic.


The reservation of seats at the IITs and institutions of excellence is a complex issue. But one thing can be said. Setting apart 20 or 30% seats to the backward classes will not take away any opportunity from the general merit-class. Because, they already are evolutionarily advanced to seek and earn their share. They are already advanced intellectually. What i mean to say is that, economic independence and wealth do not solve the issue at all. The root problem is in the genes, and the remedy requires more than just a few perks to a few individuals. Mixing their genome with the general population will be the ultimate cure, but that would be too fantastic for an expectation in our society.

Spin-offs on Eugenics

I believe, we all have to learn to tolerate the current diversity of our species. We might have to accept the reality of religion-genes, criminality-genes, racism-genes, communism-genes, capitalism-genes, atheism- genes, agnosticism-genes, and what not for that matter. Within our species, each of these has a time and place – to dominate, to stagnate and even to whither away or may be even replaced by totally new genes for totally new things. But the million dollar question is whether our race is ready for that.
Most societies, be it capitalistic or communist, are growing more authoritarian by the day.
That’s a problem with all kinds of eugenics. One might argue for positive eugenics, on the basis that it promotes good qualities of human genome. But as far as our science knows it, most smart-genes are associated with some or the other kind of psychologic / organic defects in the brain – autism and schizophrenia being the ends of a spectrum. Finding a balance in the gene bridge is the biggest problem.

When smartness becomes unlimited, the person becomes a total rebel defying all laws imposed by the society.. When artistic areas of the brain are genetically pushed to its limits, the person experiences regression of the other areas which may even tend towards autism..!! (the autistic idiot savant syndrome is the best example of this kind).

If we promote negative eugenics, by not permitting” diseased” genes from reproducing, that will be an encroachment into the very nature of our life on this planet. But its a re surging concept now. Most genetic screenings are in one or the other way, negative eugenics. Its only a matter of time before the “criminals” in jails will be banned from reproducing…!!


Are you saying that we have to go against evolution?

I was exactly trying to say we have to go against evolution in this matter….!
Or else, this race won’t last another millennium…that’s for sure.

Why, because, its the unique ability of the hominids to manipulate nature to meet his needs rather than letting nature manipulate him.

Thats simply what we have been doing ever since we branched out from the primate ancestors…Just look around and we will see only those things that man has built, invented or designed, to suit his needs, to help alleviate his toil, to ease his life, to bring out the maximum of his potential…!

Our hospitals defy the very basics of natural selection by differential extinction,
Our prenatal checkups do the same
Our geriatric centers do the same
Our schools do the same
Our railway, airlines, banks, bridges and roads, our space stations, satellites, rockets, hydel power stations, nuclear reactors….you name it…Everything helps man in one way or the other in defying Nature’s forces, and saving him from being deselected..!

So why don’t we extend this privilege to all classes of people in every population..?

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Darwinian and neo-Darwinian ideas of natural selection, differential extinction and adaptive evolution have traditionally been linked to capitalistic views of “survival of the fittest”. As decades passed by, people including the scientific community at large began seeing Darwinian Laws of evolution (its not just a theory any more) as a justification for the greed, consumerism, “hire-fire” notions and at times, the imperialistic overtones of right winged capitalism and market rule.


There are no evidences to show that Darwin himself took his theories to this extent. But the synonymity between capitalistic notions of “might is right” has been increasingly supported by many studies on genetic determinism. Now, anything from racial superiority to anti-reservation campaign is justified by these contorted interpretations of laws of evolution. Even though Galton’s eugenics failed miserably in its original form (negative eugenics), it is coming back in many new disguises from white supremacy to culture-war theories – a poetic justice to history, I should say.


Are the laws of evolution as anti-socialistic as is viewed to be?



It is an undisputed fact that selection process of nature is highly merit-based and extinction awaits anything that is maladapted to its environs.





What helps adaptation?
Phenotypic expressions of genes on an individual basis and in combinations.

This is where determinists hijack the theory.
First, every trait from music and arts to adoption of a religious belief becomes the responsibility of genes. And if genes are the basis of selection, then there has to be superiority and inferiority among genes, as there are superior and inferior qualities, they say. Any animal that inherits undesirable or malfunctioning genes, as a rule, becomes inferior by their standards. Some take it a little further and attribute every trait they hate, on genes.


Thus ‘black skin’ becomes an undesired trait; lower scores on IQ tests become an undesired trait; poor performance in economic issues becomes an undesirable trait; inability of the brain to concur with societal laws becomes undesirable…the hate-list soon grows to include anything from eating habits, ideologies, cultures to (these days) even religious beliefs!


It is not surprising that the Nature versus Nurture debate now revolves around this controversy.


What these people and scientists don’t see is the context in which “survival of the fittest” is applicable. Homosapiens as a species needs to compete with everything around, including other life forms as well as nature for survival and he is doing the job remarkably well. But within the species are we supposed to keep this rule alive? Mammals, as a group, have evolved to the present state facing stiff competition from many other groups – mostly reptiles. And it is undoubtedly, societal cooperation that has helped them the most in the fight.

Hominids are no different…



In fact, it is ‘intra-specific cooperation’ that has been key in the development of many humanly attributable qualities – like language, script, technology and science; this is true for every social animal. There is ample evidence to show that all those ‘human’ qualities that we boast about, are result of nurturing the right kind of genes. The recent expositions regarding the environmental influences on psychosocial development and human intelligence points to this direction.


The laws of evolution, far from being the Trojan horse for social injustice, are actually excellent tools for social-engineering in every positive sense of the word. To see this, you just have to consider the whole of humanity – rather hominids – as one large group pitched against the forces of nature. The importance of universal nurturing of advantageous traits thru global initiatives will thus become clearer in the new light.


This essentially will mean that leaving various sects of the society to its own fate thru unrestricted finance capital and free market economy is not only against the spirit of human evolution but also the greatest blunder that man can commit, considering the unique ability of his brain to stand up against his genes. And that is where Socialism marries Darwinism.


Let me conclude quoting Dawkins, the messiah of ‘selfish gene’, who wrote in a rebuttal of Lewontin, Rose & Kamin:


…. it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences…. human sexuality has evolved from natural selection just the same way any animal trait evolved…this means that there have been genes influencing sexual desire just as genes ever influence anything. Yet ‘genetic determinists’ have no trouble holding back their sexual desires when it is socially necessary to do so. What is dualist about that? Obviously nothing…We, that is our brains, are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them…we do so in a small way when we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too…

[The Selfish Gene : 1989 OUP edition End notes to Chapter 11]


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