\ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs\ Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.

Storytelling, Dramatic Arc and Neurochemistry

Classic Dramatic Arc: exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement

Classic Dramatic Arc: exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement (Source: Aeon Video)

What does neuroscience have to do with storytelling? What do cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a narrative’s dramatic arc? Perhaps everything!

“Stories that fail to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement—no matter how outwardly happy or pleasant those stories may be—elicit little if any emotional or chemical response…” ~ Dr. William Casebeer (Source: Future of Storytelling)

Too elementary? Too pedantic? Not so quick.

Paul Zak, an econ./psych./mgmt. professor at Claremont Graduate University has lifted the cranial hood on stellar storytelling and discovered that the dramatic arc powers effective storytelling.

“Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.” ~ Paul Zak (Source: Brain Pickings)

Here’s the video you want to watch. And rewatch. And just possibly forward to your writing teachers, partners, mentors,…

Empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc Neuroscience suggests that the classic dramatic arc can change our brains and spur us to action. In this 6-minute documentary, a neuroscientist’s study suggests that the classic dramatic arc can change our brains and spur us to action. (Paul Zak, Future of StoryTelling 2012)

Here’s a tidy summary if you prefer reading to watching a video:

In this animated exploration of one of his most illuminating experiments, [Paul] Zak discusses the surprisingly calculable effects that the classic dramatic arc (exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement) has on our brain chemistry and, ultimately, on our decisions and actions.

Monitoring the brain activity of hundreds of study subjects watching a video with a simple narrative, Zak found increases in the levels of the neurochemicals oxytocin and cortisol, which are associated with empathic responses. Most remarkable, however, was the discovery that this response also resulted in study subjects taking action, in this case through donating money they had just earned to a charitable cause related to the story they watched and even to fellow subjects. Zak’s conclusion that there could be a universal story structure that functions to connect us to each other might not be surprising to storytellers, but seeing it supported by neuroscience is a tale worth repeating. (Source: Aeon Video)

Indeed. Repeating and practicing. Thanks, Paul Zak for confirming what we storytellers already knew (or claim to know) but sometimes overlook. Or ignore. At our narrative’s peril!

Greenfields & Graytones

Cancel your conference call. Skip lunch. Toggle your status settings to “Do not disturb.” On everything. Switch your phone to vibrate. Better, turn it off.

Now click the play button (bottom left). Then click the full screen option (bottom rightish).

Greenfields comes to you courtesy of Luis Betancourt, Benjamin Vedrenne, Joseph Coury, Michel Durin and Charly Nzekwu. The graytones are courtesy of your own imagination. Or memory? Saturate the color and invent your escape!

Illiterate: Lost Narratives

Discourse is dead. Soundbite hypnosis prevails. We’ve forgotten how to hear, watch, and read the lost narratives that swim around us, that weave us together. We’ve forgotten.

The lion's head from the side of the lost and found bin... (Photo: virtualDavis)

The lion’s head from the side of the lost and found bin…

Or we’ve chosen to forget, to be illiterate, to ignore the narratives. Chosen to muddle them, to mask them, to distort them.

This is what I see when my optimism is smudged with soot and grease. This is what I was seeing when I came across Tim Akimoff’s thoughts on lost narratives. Or narrative illiteracy.

The saddest thing in the whole world right now is that we’re illiterate.

We’ve lost our sense of narrative. We only remember a few basic things, and into these things we try to cram every thing that makes us happy or sad.

If they fit nicely, we are comforted. If they don’t fit nicely, we re-write them or try to bury them…

The world is full of narratives. It is not ours to decide if they fit something we already understand…

It is ours to listen, to read, to watch. To look beyond the craftsmanship of story to the truths that tie us all together into one big, ugly, beautiful tribe…

And sometimes ours is to suffer in the lack of knowledge. Sometimes ours is to feel, with others, the tragedy that defies explanation. This too is story. (The Narrative, by Tim Akimoff on October 28, 2014, Medium)

Perhaps we can create a lost and found bin for narratives. Perhaps we are that bin… And we can filter through the lost narratives, listening and feeling, even suffering, the truths. And then perhaps we will wipe the smudge from our optimism with a hankie. And sally forth!

Kickstart David Berkeley’s Stories and Songs

David Berkeley, by Avery Rimer

David Berkeley, by Avery Rimer

I’m fresh back in the Adirondacks after a revitalizing Santa Fe sojourn where I discovered David Berkeley (@davidberkeley). I was invited to a concert. I was unable to attend. I found his website. I read. I listened. I discovered his Kickstarter campaign for a combination book/album.

Long story short. I’m hooked. First, his music is habit forming. Not like dark chocolate. Or base jumping. More like a timely letter (handwritten, not emailed) from a friend that arrives in your mailbox on the same day that you awoke missing him/her. Rhythmic storytelling that sounds familiar from the first listen. Hints of Cat Stevens…

There was more poetry too. A shared connection to St. John’s and even a secret stash of high desert goodness known as Chupadero. Sometimes life rhymes.

In any event, I’m psyched to be able to help him crowdsource his fifth recording project, a book-album combo that he’s crowd funding to the tune of $25k. And he’s almost there. And almost out of time. And I hope you’ll consider helping out. You can thank me (and David Berkeley) later. I’ll thank you now. Thanks. Gracias!

12 Years a Slave Wins Oscar

12 Years a Slave (doodle by virtualDavis)

12 Years a Slave (doodle by virtualDavis)

In a triumph long deferred, “12 Years a Slave” won the best picture Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards… “I’d like to thank this amazing story,” said Steve McQueen, the British-born filmmaker… “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live…” (

The endless Academy Awards ceremony defeated me before I could witness rightful victory, but this morning I awoke to discover the news emblazoned everywhere. 12 Years a Slave Wins Oscar. 12 Years a Slave Wins Oscar!

I was not in the least surprised that 12 Years a Slave took the coveted top trophy. In fact I would have been dismayed if it had been passed over. The storytelling and characters impacted me profoundly and enduringly.

The film is gripping and visceral… unfiltered and unforgiving. McQueen captures slavery in its least sympathetic and most complex iteration I can recall, plunging into it’s insidious, malignant effect, dehumanizing slave, master end every one in between. (I Want to Live: Praise for 12 Years a Slave)

Steve McQueen Does Not Win Oscar

12 Years a Slave wins Oscar, but the film’s Director does not. There’s inevitably some debate over whether or not Director Steve McQueen deserved to win Best Director which was instead awarded to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity. I don’t know. There’s no question in my mind that 12 Years a Slave was a superior film, but how much of that credit is owed the director is an assessment that exceeds my knowledge or opinion.

Chiwetel Ejiofor Does Not Win Oscar

I am disappointed that Chiwetel Ejiofor did not receive and Oscar for Best Actor in a leading role for his riveting portrayal of Solomon Northup. Matthew McConaughey was excellent in Dallas Buyers Club, but Ejiofor transcended mere excellence. He embodied a character, an historic figure and history itself in a was that will remain etched into the psyche of everyone who watches the film. See why the Academy doesn’t ask me to weigh in? ;-)

Lupita Nyong’o Wins Oscar!

My disappointment that Chiwetel Ejiofor did not win an Oscar is partly tempered by the fact that Lupita Nyong’o won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was outstanding, and she deserved to win. I can’t wait to see what film she transforms next.


Caffeinated Comics and Quirky Cars

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (with Jerry Seinfeld)

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (with Jerry Seinfeld)

[Note: If you’re a linguistic puritan, please excuse the liberty I took in my title for this post. Caffeinated Comics is actually a misnomer given that Jerry Seinfeld’s latest project involves more than just standup comedians, but it conjures up a droll image that I couldn’t resist. Sorry.]

Are you ready for season three of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee? I am. And despite

I’ve never been much of a television guy, but as a bartender in graduate school I developed an appetite for Jerry Seinfeld, pretty much the only personality in the perennially-on glow box over my head that cut through the bar buzz. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s articulate. And he’s a great storyteller.

Jerry Seinfeld Doodle

Jerry Seinfeld Doodle

If you haven’t caught up with him lately, you’re due for a welcome surprise. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is a web-based project described by its creators as follows:

Jerry Seinfeld is joined by friends for a drive in a classic car and having coffee, sharing stories all along the way. (Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee)

Caffeinated comics and [mostly] caffeinated cars. It’s goofy, laid back and revealing. Entertaining but un-airbrushed. It’s candid. It’s unrehearsed (so far as I can tell), and it offers up an endearing angle on what makes some of the funny businesses’ stars tick. On the Facebook page Seinfeld offered this explanation to the question “Why are you doing this?”

Well, I’ve been doing it my whole life. But talk shows and interviews can’t let you see this other side of the comedy world. To me, one of the best parts. I just thought it might be a fun thing for fans. (FAQ: Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee)

Tune in for the new season which launches on January 2, 2014.

One X-Ray and Two Tooth Stories

X-Ray of my Chompers on February 9, 2011.

X-Ray of my Chompers on February 9, 2011.

Sorry about the creep x-ray. And about the even creepier tooth stories I’m about to tell. If you freak out about going to the dentist, this post is not for you.

Try “Drunk Doodles” or “Schopenhauer’s Flâneur” instead…

I never really considered the relationship between teeth and stories until today. When my dentist took my annual mouth x-rays a couple of years ago, I asked him to email this image of my mouth. I no longer remember what possessed me, probably just curious if he would oblige, but today I came across the goofy grin. Two stories were immediately visible in the black and white x-ray.

Look at my two top front teeth. The x-ray suggests that I’m chewing bubblegum. Or preparing to shoot a spitball? The truth is that those two front top teeth were damaged long ago while riding a bicycle. My smile today comes to you courtesy of a long parade of capable dentists who repair my reconstructed front teeth every few years.

Wheelie Teeth

It was a summer day, and I was visiting a friend whose mother gave us permission to ride our bikes down to Rosemary Remington’s for ice cream.

My mother didn’t allow us to ride bikes on the road, so it was a particular thrill to peddle down the pavement. Freedom! There’s something about riding a bicycle on a peeve corrode as a child that is truly intoxicating. Add to that an ice cream cone and probably a chocolate bar. Cycling in the land of enchantment!

While popping a wheelie on the way back to my friends house I overpulled and smashed the handlebars into my teeth. I reached into my mouth and collected the fragments. I looked down into my wet hand, small pieces of broken tooth. I ran my finger over my two top front teeth.  I had broken a perfect upside down V into my still new “adult teeth”. Only my mother’s heart broke into more pieces than my own. Oh, to relive that single moment!

Wisdom Teeth

Tooth Stories: From x-rays to wisdom teeth and beyond...

Tooth Stories

Absent in this image are my wisdom teeth, all four. And while that gaping maw looks laid back enough about it now, I was anything but calm at the time.

For some reason, my wisdom teeth were not removed until I was part way through college. By the time our dentist decided I needed to have them removed, they were severely impacted. Apparently this is common enough, though less common is a roughly 20-year-old male who is scared to death of needles. I had known they were going to knock me out in order to extract the teeth, and I had been agonizing over the inevitable injection for days before arriving at the orthodontist’s office. Well, turns out the ortho had a solution for that too. I was strapped to the operating table and after wrenching and flinching each time he attempted to insert the IV, he placed a mask over my mouth and turned on the gas. Once I was mellowed out he slipped the needle into me without my knowledge or reaction. I remember him talking to me.

“So you go to Georgetown?”

“Um-hmm,” I mumbled through the mask.

“That’s where I studied orthodontia.”

“Really? I didn’t know there was a dental program,” I tried to say, feeling calm and far, far away. “When did you graduate?”

“We had to break the top teeth to get them out, but I have the bottom ones if you’d like to keep them”

What? What?!?!  That’s my one experience with anesthesia. Sort of like a sloppy film edit. Same characters. Same setting. But a half hour of footage was extracted in the blink of an eye.

The rest of the story involves codeine and a slooow recovery, but it’s less interesting than the half hour of my life that was edited out with my wisdom teeth.

Tooth Stories and X-Ray Storytelling

Did you ever pretend that you had x-ray vision as a child? Or maybe as an adult? I remember advertisements for x-ray vision glasses that could be ordered from comic books or bubble gum wrappers. Never tested that one out.

But imagine if we could use x-ray storytelling to spy under people’s prettied up veneers! Maybe we can. I try all the time. A stranger in line at supermarket flips her hair while closing her eyes for a moment longer than a blink. And suddenly my x-ray storytelling is conjuring up a narrative. Probably not an accurate narrative, but an intriguing and startling narrative. Maybe that’s the same way those comic book x-ray vision glasses worked too…

If I turned my x-ray storytelling on you, what tooth stories would I discover?

I Want to Live: Praise for 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (doodle by virtualDavis)

12 Years a Slave (doodle by virtualDavis)

Almost 24 hours after watching 12 Years a Slave (movie) I still can’t shake it. The story and characters won’t let go. They’re both still gripping me in technicolor evil. And grace.

If you haven’t seen this Director Steve McQueen’s unflinchingly candid glimpse into the enslavement of free black man Solomon Northup, you need to.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life. (Fox Searchlight: 12 Years a Slave)

The film is gripping and visceral. And fair warning, it’s also totally unfiltered and unforgiving. McQueen captures slavery in its least sympathetic and most complex iteration I can recall, plunging into it’s insidious, malignant effect, dehumanizing slave, master end every one in between. 12 Years a Slave is a genuinely immersive experience absent special effects or melodrama. McQueen deploys somewhat unconventional storytelling techniques such as an excruciatingly drawn out scene with Northup hanging from a noose, barely clinging to life, while life returns to normal around him. The juxtaposition of a slow-motion murder amidst quotidian chores and playing children is devastating.

While virtually every actor in 12 Years a Slave delivers a superb performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup is riveting. He manages to exude grace in the face of devastating events, transforming a demanding, almost impossibly complex character into one of the most powerful and believable film roles I’ve witnessed in years. Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fosbender and Brad Pitt also deliver exceptional performances, but I’ll do them and the film injustice if I continue. Just see it for yourself. Here’s a trailer to motivate you.

Find 12 Years a Slave

Persuasion and the Art of Storytelling

Persuasion and the Art of Storytelling (Image:

Persuasion and the Art of Storytelling (Image:

Persuasion is not just for salespeople and their prospects… Often the most effective persuaders are your kids. Somehow they come by it naturally while you, the adult, has to work hard to find the persuasive path to success. ~ Kevin Daum

Kevin Daum (@awesomeroar), the best-selling author of Video Marketing For Dummies, knows a thing or seven about persuasion. He believes that really persuasive people share seven behaviors that guarantee their success when performed together.

Here are five of the behaviors that also lend themselves to the art of storytelling:

  • Listen “You can’t persuade effectively if you don’t know the other side of the argument.”
  • Connect “You’ll persuade people much more easily if they are open and aligned with your desires.”
  • Acknowledge Credibility “When you are persuading people, reinforce their credibility on facts and opinions rather than dismissing them outright.”
  • Offer Satisfaction “Give ground where you can and hold your ground only where it matters. Choose being successful over being right.”
  • Know When to Shut Up “Wearing people down is not an effective strategy.”

[Adapted from Kevin Daum. “7 Things Really Persuasive People Do.” Inc. 5000. Aug 2, 2013]

Robert Dickman, author of The Elements of Persuasion helped bridge the story-persuasion divide in a Businessweek column by in August 2007.

a story is a fact wrapped in an emotion that compels an action which transforms our world… Take “All Gone.” We all told that one [as infants]. The fact was our bottle was empty. We wrapped that fact in an emotion—either annoyance because we wanted more, or satisfaction because we were full—and expressed it by crying or cooing. This compelled our parents to take an action—either getting another bottle or burping us and settling us down. Either way our world was changed. (“Storytelling and the Art of Persuasion“)

Despite my childfree choice and lifestyle, I’m a fan and student of children. (In fact, some would say that I’m still one myself!) As a lapsed teacher and a less lapsed uncle I’ve learned plenty from the most naturally persuasive storytellers in our midst. I suspect few would argue the fact that children, even infants, master the art of storytelling the moment they first lock eyes with an audience. Mom. Dad. Siblings.

The art of storytelling is initially almost the only weapon in our persuasion arsenal, so we polish it to perfection and maintain it meticulously without even realizing we are doing so. And we use it. Again and again. As son as we realize how effectively we can persuade (read “manipulate”) circumstances, we instinctively begin experimenting and honing our nascent art of storytelling.

The Art of Listening

While one mark of childish persuasion is the inability to listen, the stubborn insistence on shoving forward no matter how resolved and resistant the audience, savvy youngsters discover the art of listening early on.

People who know how to persuade… are actively listening when in persuasion mode. First, they are listening to assess how receptive you are to their point of view. Second, they are listening for your specific objections, which they know they’ll have to resolve. Last, they are listening for moments of agreement so they can capitalize on consensus. ~ Kevin Daum (7 Things Really Persuasive People Do)

I’ve argued elsewhere that the art of listening may be the most fundamental skill in effective storytelling. Children are the original A/B split testers, running different versions of their story past both parents (and any other relevant influencers) based upon their day-to-day assessment of their audience’s receptivity. Horse trading their way through a forest of objections and emphasizing the moments of agreement (no matter how few or stretched) are also early learned skills.

Create a Connection

Parents are impenetrable fortresses when the child is pushing a categorically unacceptable agenda. But parents will lower the drawbridge to negotiate when they detect overlapping objectives.

Really persuasive people… look for common ground to help establish emotional bonds and shared objectives. They show empathy for your position and make it known that they are on your side. ~ Kevin Daum (7 Things Really Persuasive People Do)

Whether you’re an ankle-biter or a seasoned film producer, the art of storytelling involves sidestepping antagonistic issues (at least initially) to forge a sympathetic dynamic between storyteller and audience. Once the drawbridge is down and you’re swapping pipe dreams and war stories on the grassy bank of the moat, watching ducks bobbing for snacks under bluebird skies, persuasive storytellers know that they stand a better chance of finding a receptive audience even to the “problem” issues.

Acknowledge Audience Credibility

Kids struggle with this. Heck, most adults struggle with this. Struggling to win over your audience by arguing the superiority of your experience, knowledge, facts, etc. mostly pisses people off. We all think we’re right. But this doesn’t stand in the way of persuasive storytellers.

When you are persuading people, reinforce their credibility on facts and opinions rather than dismissing them outright. Then they’ll be more likely to pay you equal respect in the exchange and be more open to the merits of your opposing view. ~ Kevin Daum (7 Things Really Persuasive People Do)

And if not, then you’re wasting your time. Move on!

Offer Satisfaction by Yielding

Kids struggle even more with this, perhaps because it’s tied to the previous issue. It’s about thinking big picture instead of getting tangled up in each element of your story. What’s the goal? Do you have to triumph at every turn to reach your goal? Usually not.

Smart persuaders know that they don’t have to win every little battle to win the war. They are more than willing to sacrifice when it helps the overall cause. They are ready to find the easiest path to yes. ~ Kevin Daum (7 Things Really Persuasive People Do)

Compromise along the journey, and you’ll earn the respect and trust of your audience, even though they may not share your views or goals. You are not trying to prove that you’re a genius. You just want to keep them hooked, curious, and sympathetic. By demonstrating that you may not be right about everything, you satisfy their need to object and resist. You demonstrate respect for their beliefs and needs. And you earn their confidence that you’re not trying to dupe them, just guide them toward a mutually meaningful conclusion.

Tell Your Story and then Shut Up

It goes without saying that one of the most pleasing rights of passage from youth to adulthood is learning this lesson. And one of the most aggravating forms of birth control is arguing with a kid who won’t shut up.

Successful persuaders get that you don’t win the battle by constantly berating people with an unending verbal barrage… They carefully support their arguments and check in with questions… [and then] they step back. ~ Kevin Daum (7 Things Really Persuasive People Do)

Frankly, this is my biggest shortcoming as a storyteller. I’m prone to blather on ad nauseum. Not good. Neither in written storytelling, nor in oral storytelling. I continue to work at this, but I’ve a long way to go. Which reminds me, it’s time to wrap up… I still have some growing up to do before I perfect the art of storytelling!


You see, I’m not good at shutting up. But I’m working on it. I promise. I close with a hat tip and deep bow to Kevin Daum (@awesomeroar) whose article I’ve read and run through the food processor to suit my present needs. Sorry if I’ve distorted your opinions and processed your article into the digital equivalent of potted meat. And thanks for the inspiring road map and cogent argument. You, sir, are a persuasive storyteller!

Storytelling and Social Engagement

Talk to Me! Storytelling and Social Engagement...

Talk to Me! Storytelling and Social Engagement…

Prepare for a reactive post, no, an interactive conversation, about social engagement.

But first, what about that photo? Bam! A powerful graphic. Except for the middle word…

I’d prefer “Talk with me.” Because social media is all about with. Old school, top-down, one-way, pump-it-out, force fed broadcast media was all about to. Do you follow me?

Engaging Storytelling

Media has evolved. Most of it. Not all. There are still a few knuckle-draggers lurking in the shadows!

Which is why storytelling – in it’s simplest, purest and most engaging form – trumps old school broadcast media. Storytelling in its oldest form. Pre-books. Pre-TV. Pre-movies.

Storytelling is about social engagement, author-audience engagement. Storytelling is about relationships. It’s about with. Not to.

Social Media

Which brings me to Randy Thio (@ideabloke), the founder of ideabloke, “a personal digital media agency committed to 100% organic social media practices.” His post, The Endgame Of Social Engagement provoked my curiosity because I don’t consider social media to have an endgame. Not in the conventional sense. At best there’s no final stage. No end of the process.

Social media is about building relationships, about engaging and maintaining communication, about interacting, about author and audience evolving together.

Social Engagement

But Thio is focusing on the initial social engagement, not social media in general. The objective of engaging an individual through social media, he proposes, is to provoke (and then hopefully extend) a response.

In it’s purest sense, engagement is the ability to cause another person to respond… using any (or a combination of) the following methods:

  • Comments – In response to a status update, tweet, or blog post.
  • Shares – Includes linking/mentioning on a blog post they wrote.
  • Likes – Includes +K’s, Kred, etc.
  • Retweets – Whether native or via a tweet button
  • Mentions – Includes Follow Fridays, etc.
  • Favorites – Anytime your tweet/update/post is faved on any platform
  • Pins/Repins – Pinterest specific of course.
  • Tags – Whenever a user is tagged on pics on any platform.
  • Hashtags – When ppl begin to adopt & share a hashtag you created.
  • Pokes – Yes, I did just put that on there.

Whichever method the audience chooses to respond, it’s critical to acknowledge and capitalize on the opportunity to have a conversation… geared to get to know that particular person… which hopefully leads to a relationship. ~ Randy Thio (

Social Media as Storytelling

Short of wandering village to village like Mario Vargas Llosa’s storyteller, social media offers raconteurs of all stripes ideal audience interaction. Ideal global audience interaction. With no end game. Except building a rich and enduring relationship. Social engagement is the first step, the wink, the handshake of social media. Social engagement is the open door behind the well worn welcome mat.

Unlike broadcasters, live storytellers understand this intuitively. Initial social engagement is the spark of interest, the pause long enough to listen, a provocation, an invitation. But storytelling itself, live storytelling, is the original social media. Live storytelling is an interactive relationship, and the story evolves accordingly, being shaped collaboratively by author and audience. The storyteller listens and watches and feels, tailoring the narrative to the appetites and needs of the audience. Sometimes abbreviating; other times inventing extemporaneously.

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