Sunday, September 13, 2009

 

The 2009 Astros


One thing I bet you peeps, like your ol’ Uncle, enjoy is “WHO’S THE BEST?” That’s why we watch the Oscars, Emmies, Tonys, Grammies, and CMAs, I reckon. It occurred to me quite some time back that we lack an amateur-astronomy-centric awards show. No, I am not suggestin’ we have more than our share of Drama Queens. Just that it would be cool to see the year’s outstanding products and personalities and events given recognition. Yeah, I know the Astronomical League gives out awards at their annual convention, but that ain’t quite the same. They don’t have Uncle Al and Scott Roberts in the audience sweatin’ it out for Best Eyepiece.

Till such time as we do have our own show, I offer you The Astros, Unk’s virtual awards ceremony where virtual statuettes will be passed out for real achievements in the art and science of amateur astronomy over the last 12 months (or thereabouts).

Without further ado, then, let’s bring on the envelopes, certified by Uncle Rod’s esteemed personal accountants, the firm of Dewey, Cheatam, and Howe, and get our gala evenin’ rolling!

Book

Recession or no, there were new amateur astronomy books being published. Hell, my own new one came out early this year. Thankfully, I somehow resisted the urge to pat myself on the back here. The envelope, please...

This was the year we got the third and final volume of Kepple and Sanner’s Magnum Opus, The Night Sky Observer’s Guide, The Southern Skies. Yeah, I know, it’s a little specialized, with even me at South 30 only havin’ access to a small percentage of its wonders, but I’ll buy it anyway as will a lot of Kepple and Sanner fanatics (though, this time out, it’s Mr. Kepple with two new co-authors and no Sanner). Good, yeah, but not enough widespread appeal to take the Golden Dog. Rut-roh.

There was also a new edition of Dickinson and Dyer’s time tested Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, with a lot of new material, enough to make it great for beginners and an attractive buy for old hands. And there was the oft-engaging Steve O’Meara’s Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars. Again, good, both of ‘em, but no cigar, not quite.

So what caught my attention on the shelves of Barnes and Noble this time out? Not much. I don’t know about your local B&N, but mine has steadily reduced their selection of science/math books, going so far as to put ‘em near the bathrooms in a corner where they can’t scare any innocent teens. Most of my buying was from Amazon and the Astronomical League’s book store (of which I hope you are familiar). In fact, the AL store is where the year’s winner came from. The 2009 Astro for the year’s best book goes to…

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Observer's Handbook 2009 (Edited by Patrick Kelly). Maybe it’s my drive toward simplification, but this was what I found most useful this past trip around Sol. Yeah, I know, I could fire up SkyTools or Cartes du Ciel and get the same info about astronomical events. But what if I don’t want to drag a stinkin’ laptop with me (and I often don’t of late)? There is far more to the Observer’s Handbook than just calendars and tables, too. It is jam-packed with articles, resources, lists, you-name-it on every facet of observing. The tables, of course, make a new copy every year a more than worthwhile stocking stuffer. The only bad thing about it? All too many newbies don’t seem to know of this excellent book’s existence. Nor do they seem aware of the value to observers inherent in our runners up:

The Farmer’s Almanac (Peter Geiger, Editor) and The Old Farmer’s Almanac (Janice Stillman, Editor)

Most amateurs, I suppose, are somewhat aware these (and similar) almanacs are useful in that they contain Sun and Moon data for the year. What might surprise is the amount of other astronomy in these books, like planetary observing information, Full Moon names, meteor shower dates, equinox/solstice data, eclipse dates, and plenty of other goodies. There’s also the (sometimes) surprisingly accurate weather forecasts, and, no surprise seein’ as how both are published in New England, lotsa down-home Yankee wisdom. I must have been a New Englander in a previous life, since, surprising as is might be for y’all to hear, I’ve had a long and intensifying interest in that region’s people, customs, and geography.

Which one to choose? Farmer’s has somewhat less of an astrological perspective on the sky; Old Farmer’s has more astro-related material and regional editions. What-ev; you can’t go wrong with either. These little books don’t need a battery to give you Sunset times, and go for an amazing $5.99 at the moment, so get on down to the corner Walgreens and just get one.

Personality

The amateur “Names” contingent seemed to be keepin’ a low profile this year—maybe because Hard Times meant many astro-writers stuck close to home. I saw David Levy on the TV a few times, and his web-radio show appears to be a hit. But the nod goes to the pros this year:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson seemed to be everywhere on the boob tube, and particularly on the History Channel’s popular series, Universe. Not only is Dr. Tyson incredibly knowledgeable, as befits somebody with a PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia, he’s also a personable and charismatic feller, and, as you’d also expect from someone who’s in the planetarium business (he’s the director of Hayden Planetarium), he’s heavily education/public outreach oriented.

Who else? Michio Kaku, the eminent physicist and string theorist has also been all over the cable channels. I have enjoyed his books (especially Hyperspace) very much, and am pleased to see this engaging personality providing some much needed theoretical grounding to TV shows that would otherwise tend to the THE EARTH IS DOOMED drivel that Discover, History, and even Science gravitate to increasingly of late.

Media

If you get the high cable channels, you run across a lot of astronomy-oriented shows, some good and some stinky like week-old fish, often episodes in series like Modern Marvels or some such. There is no doubt, though, that the History Channel’s Universe, now in its 4th season, is the king of cable science popularization.

The Universe takes the Puppy tonight, but how good is it? Some amateurs (and professionals) take a dim view, citing its sensationalism. In truth, though, it’s usually the episode titles (“Death Star”) that are sensationalistic, with the episodes themselves often being well done and thoughtful. The one on the Theory of Relativity was the best non-technical explanation of ol’ Albert’s chef-d'oeuvre I’ve seen in a long time. Not that Universe is perfect. They frequently have stellar guests/contributors—like the aforementioned Neil Tyson and Michio Kaku—but the scripts read by the series’ narrator are often prone to error. Like confusing “brightest star” and “nearest star.” Not anything that couldn’t be fixed by letting someone in the know have a look at the final shooting script. But that ain’t happening, not consistently.

If you get the three-digit cable stations, you’ve undoubtedly watched The Science Channel. There is some foolishness there (Mantracker), but also some good stuff. They are, for example, rerunning Carl Sagan’s landmark series, Cosmos, which, in this ol’ boy’s opinion, has never been equaled. They also have a new one, Exodus Earth, in which their friendly and funny physicist, Dr. Basil Singer, subjects himself to weird tests and experiments in the course of exploring the possibility of moving the human race off-planet. Fun and sometimes thought provoking.

Movie (fiction)

The only film I saw (at the theatre) that could be described as “space-oriented science fiction” was the Star Trek reboot. And it was good. A few of us DIE HARD TREKKIES may have been miffed about the way they changed the series’ continuity (“retconned” in the lingo of SF/comics/science fiction fans) by means of some warp-space-dimensional hoodoo-silliness, but there is no doubt it was charming in much the same way the old (original) series was. Yes, the special effects were modern and perfect and groovy, but they did not dominate the characters. Good thing; characters, not action, not story, is what good Trek has always been about.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod,” you chirp, “what about District 9? That’s sorta space-oriented science fiction. Why not give that second?” I know what I like, and, while I may be wrong in this case, I don’ think so. Judging by the promos and what I’ve been told about it, this looks like a particularly nasty little film. Maybe I’ll see it on DVD and change my mind. Even though the critics (who don’t know much and never have about SF) liked it, I doubt it I will, though. This ground was well-covered not that long back in the Alien Nation movies and TV series, which were good-natured and not nasty.

On a personal note, one of the greatest enhancements to me and Miss D’s movie-going in many a moon was our desertion of the old-timey film theatre down the road for a modern video projection venue across the bay in Fairhope (our affluent neighbors get all the good stuff first). Not only do my feet not stick to the floor of this nice theatre, the audiences at the evening shows don’t look like they were extras on Escape from New York, and the film is not a web of scratches and splices. Oh, an’ there is a Barnes and Noble’s, and a California Dreaming (chain place, but decent steaks and their whiskey is good) close at hand. Very Good Thing.

BLOG

Once again, I had to appeal to the better angel of my nature to help me resist the overwhelmin’ urge to just say UNCLE ROD’S ASTRO BLOG! UNCLE ROD’S ASTRO BLOG! IT’S THE BEST! But I did, and had to go and ruminate for a while on which astro-blogs I like.

This is actually a good time to be huntin’ good blogs—on the subject of astronomy or anything else. The several years since web-logging became all the rage have allowed the cream to float to the top and the rest to sink outa sight. Many folks, amateur astronomer folks and others, started bloggin’, but most of these efforts were short-lived for one or both of two reasons: bloggin’ is work; you have to keep updatin’ the thing with new material alla the time. AND…you have to find a voice, find somethin’ to say. The astronomy blogs that have been around a while are still here because their authors found a way to fulfill these requirements. Anyhoo…the winner?

Nite Sky Girl. This young woman is doing an outstanding job with her blog, and I hope you visit her site, turn all your friends, especially your novice friends, on to it, and she gets zillions of hits. Yeah, her grammar is sometimes a little whacked (who am I to talk?) and she occasionally muses (not too seriously) on UFOs and 2012, but how can you not love a blog that is subtitled “An Astronomer Who Still Has Her Beginner's Stargazer Mind”? And which contains entries like “10 of the Coolest Deep Sky Objects of the Current Night Sky to See Tonight”? Nite Sky Girl is highly knowledgeable and her site is Fresh and Charming. Go look at it. Right now.

Runner up? Howsabout Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy Blog? It’s not always about amateur astronomy, or even astronomy in general, but it is almost always fun to read. Safe choice, I know; everybody likes Phil’s website and his books, but his stuff is good and deserves lots of recognition.

Observatory Domes

I knew there should be a category for “observatory dome,” but I had trouble with this one. In part because I don’t yet own one, though I have at least looked long and lovingly at ‘em. It’s also because there are essentially two big names in the business right now (well, there’s also Ash-Dome and Observa-Dome, but who can afford those?), and they are similarly good.

What did I do? I wimped out and declared it a Tie between Skyshed’s Pod and the Exploradome. I like the Pod because it is attractive and sturdy. It’s made like them Little Tykes yard toys and vehicles Miss D. and I used to buy for the kids, and which proved near-bout indestructible. Exploradome? It’s bigger, and it’s more like a real dome with a slit and all, which I gotta admit appeals to li’l ol’ me. I’ve read both products’ Yahoogroups extensively and talked to enough users to be assured you cain’t go wrong with either one.

Internet Venue

There are tons of good astronomy, amateur astronomy, oriented websites. Everything from Sky and Telescope to Uncle Rod’s Astro Land. Let’s be honest, though, where do most of us go the most and stay the longest? Two sites: Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Again, I couldn’t assign a number one/number two since they are similarly good and distinctly different. Astromart is best known as THE place to go to buy and sell used gear. It also has a reasonably active array of discussion boards. Cloudy Nights is THE place to talk astronomy. But it also has a reasonably active classified section. Thank whatever gods there be that we’ve got both A-Mart and CN.

Computer Software

Not too much movement on this front, but a couple of notables. Mostly we seemed to be waiting for the new version of TheSky, TheSky X. Yeah, I know “TheSky X: Serious Astronomer” is out, and that’s good, but most of us astro-ware junkies are waitin’ on Professional, and I will reserve judgment till it’s in my hot little hands. Actually, given the presence of this year’s winner, I’m not sure what X can do for me. The program the golden Astro goes to is probably the only one I have not complained about on its Yahoogroup. Hell, I haven’t even annoyed its author with requests for new features. I just don’t know what I’d add. I use the thing all the time, but I am still discovering new capabilities and better ways to do stuff. It’s not perfect, no, but what software is? I just know this year’s choice gets the job done for me. It’s not all I use, but I reckon I could get by pretty well if it were.

If you’ve been readin’ this blog religiously, you know which one I mean; if you ain’t (and why not?!) what I am talking about is our esteemed first place finisher, SkyTools 3. Ask me no questions; just buy it. Preferably the Professional version.

Second? I am looking at a new one, Eye and Telescope, that definitely appears to have possibilities, but given my crazy-ass schedule of late and our crazy-bad skies of late, I have not been able to give it a thorough evaluation in the field. Till then?

It ain’t that new (though a new version is out) and it ain’t a planetarium (though it’s used as often as one by many of us). I am talking about Craig Stark’s remarkable PHD Guiding. Not only is it free, it is, in my not so humble opinion, the best. Unless I’m guiding the SBIG via its onboard guide-chip, it is all I use, and it has never let me down. Biggest recommendation? Ask your fellow astrophotographers what they use with their autoguide cameras, and most will just say “PHD.”

Magazine

There’s no avoiding the fact that between the economic crisis and the continuing decline of magazines in general, our beloved astro-rags have had a hard time. Page count has dipped, paper has cheapened, old and trusted names have disappeared. It’s probably too early to count the print magazine out just yet, however.

Just as ABC, NBC, and CBS will never be as important as they were in the days when there weren’t 300 cable channels, the astronomy magazines will never have as much impact as they did in the days before there were hundreds of amateur astronomy websites and discussion groups. Yet, the (formerly) Big Three press on and so will the magazines—I hope. Talk all you want about “new media” and e-zines, a print magazine is just danged convenient and I believe it will continue to be perceived as such for a long while yet. The secret for the rags’ survival, I think, is finding new ways to deliver content more or less in the print context.

This year’s winner, the UK’s The Sky at Night Magazine, is doing that. One of its concessions to the modern mind is that articles are shorter, snappier, and image heavy. TSAN is also graced with that staple of UK magazines, the “cover CD.” This CD has been used fairly creatively as well, with magazine articles on ATM projects being supported by plans and videos on the CD, for example. Not everybody is gonna like The Sky at Night’s breezy format—especially not the poor souls who moan about Sky and Telescope’s lack of mathematics—but in my opinion it represents a way forward if not the way forward for the astronomy magazine.

Our distinguished runner-up, Sky and Telescope, is here not because it is a sentimental favorite of mine, but because its editor and staff have worked hard to keep it the best U.S. astronomy magazine. Page count is up again, there are some interesting (if not always successful) changes, and, all in all, this iteration of this legendary pub is more than worthy of continuing to grace my mailbox as it has done for more months than I care to recall.

Astronomy Dealer

OK, y’all…you’ve gotta help me out. I couldn’t choose. I couldn’t even whittle it down to two. Over the years, the amateur astronomy business has had its fair share of rascals and snake oil salesmen. The last edition of these awards (1997), in fact, gave the Golden Pup to Pocono Mountain Optics, who proceeded to relieve quite a few amateurs of hard-earned simoleons. This year’s co-winners have all been in business year after year, some for thirty plus years, dealing honestly, knowledgeably, and kindly with amateur astronomers, often their fellow amateurs. The winners are, in alphabetical order:

Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird
Astronomics
Oceanside Photo and Telescope (OPT)
Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center)

The most wonderful thing? While these four are outstanding, in part for their longevity, we have many more honest and reliable dealers today, with these winners really being just the cream of a creamy crop.

Astronomical Event

There was no great comet or other cosmic spectacular to draw our and the general public’s undivided attention, but there was quite a lot going down on Mother Earth. Namely The International Year of Astronomy. Which obviously takes First Place. What was it? It was a series of events across the globe designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope on the heavens. To that end, professional and amateur astronomers and astronomy educators cooperated to bring a host of events to the general public. One of these was, as I see from the envelope, this year’s International Sidewalk Astronomy Night “ISAN”.

ISAN, the Second Place, is a project of The Sidewalk Astronomers, a California non-profit that had its genesis in San Francisco with John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. In 2007, the group took Sidewalk Astronomy to the world with a specific evenin’ on which astronomy groups were urged to bring the sky to the public with an emphasis on informal urban events, the essence of sidewalk astronomy.

From what I can tell, this year’s third edition was a huge success. Why, even the good old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society participated (our second year). ISAN was a great idea and one we seem to enjoy more even than Astronomy Day. It’s focused on observing the sky with the public on a particular evening and impels us to get off our backsides and onto the sidewalks (rather than just setting up a sad little Astronomy Day booth at the Mall).

Star Party

I ain’t been to too many this year. Not as a speaker, anyhow. As a civilian, I made a few and will make a couple more before the year’s is out. This is, once again, a real hard place for me to do pickin’ and choosin’. For a simple reason: I have NEVER had a bad time at any star party I’ve attended. What’s out there that’s Real Good? I could mention many, starting with our local Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and moving on to the Almost Heaven Star Party in the east and the Idaho Star Party in the west, and many more in-between. Two, however, stand out.

This year’s top spot is taken, as it was the last time I brought you these awards 12 years back, by The Texas Star Party. As I said way back when, it’s difficult to beat the combination of great skies, great people, and a great facility (Prude Ranch). Not that the TSP don’t have some competition of late, which is great. As The Chairman said, “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.” He was All Messed Up, but he was right about that, at least. The more star parties, the better. One in TSP’s area of the country that I hear more and more good things about is Okie Tex.

Nevertheless, in order to qualify for an award, the hoedown has to be one your ol’ Uncle has attended. What impressed me most of late was the resurrected Chiefland Star Party. After a hiatus of several years, the fall event at Chiefland has returned under new management and having been renamed the (to me) kinda weird “Nova Sedus Chiefland Star Party Group Star Party.”

Whatever. It’s the place and the people that count. Chiefland has got it good there, starting with location. Despite the Chiefland Astronomy Village’s proximity to Chiefland, Florida proper, the skies are (still) amazingly fine. Even at the height of last summer’s humidity, the Milky Way just blazed away. The people? Some of the nicest amateurs you will meet. This November will bring the second year for the “new” CSP. Last year was the inaugural, and I thought it went very well. Some rough edges to be filed down, sure, but I expect that will have happened.

Eyepiece

Judging by the traffic on the Cloudy Nights and Astromart message boards, everybody still don't like the Ethos series, and many of the folks who don’t like the Ethos don’t like it for reasons that have nothing to do with the eyepieces’ performance. Most amateurs who’ve actually used an Ethos acknowledge it is a breakthrough, whether or not they think it is “for them.” It’s amazing, however, how quickly people who’ve decided they don’t need or won’t like “all that field” become captivated by and then accustomed to the monumental 100-degree AFOV. 100-degrees of apparent field is only the tip of the Ethos iceberg. Once you get done gapin’ at all that outer space, you notice how sharp and contrasty everything is and how good the stars look at the edge. Not surprisingly, our lovely virtual statuette goes to…

Ethos, Ethos, Ethos!

First Place: Ethos 17mm. This is one hell of an ocular. I will say no more than that. Good as it is, it was almost eclipsed from the start by rumors of the forthcoming appearance of “the big one,” an Ethos in the 20mm range. That came this summer, and I am gonna go out on a limb and give second spot to…

The 21mm Ethos. Yeah, yeah, I know. It ain’t been seen much less touched by many mortals such as you an’ me (one was auctioned off at Stellafane to benefit that storied star party and fetched around 1600 dineros), but it has already created enough of a stir that it is at least worthy of the award on basis of the earth-shattering effect it’s had on the psyches of confirmed eyepiece junkies.

Telescope

What with the crash and burn of Wall Street, I didn’t expect too much in the way of telescope introductions this year. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did Celestron introduce a new line, Meade brought forth a fresh ETX permutation that sounded right interesting. And GSO continued to make waves on these shores, not just with 16-inch Dobsonians for rock-bottom prices, but with a line of scopes that surprised e’en little old me.

I so wanted the ETX LS to take the envelope. This was a 6-inch SCT (available with “standard” or ACF optics) with some real innovations including a self-alignment feature that uses a built in webcam-like imager. Given Meade’s troubles of late, I was rootin’ for them, and figgered they deserved a win. Alas…while some LSes have worked great out of the box, a near equal number, it sounds like, didn’t, either being DOA or refusing to align themselves. If this scope gets over the rough spot, I do expect great things from it and its concept.

First prize, then, went straight to long-time rival, Celestron, for their (not yet available) Edge HD series of SCTs. These OTAs, available in the usual 8 – 14-inch apertures, feature, most of all, a corrective lens element in the baffle tube that both flattens the field and reduces coma. Potentially these should be able to best even Meade’s berry, berry good ACFs. The HDs also feature vents to speed cool-down and mirror locks, two things we’ve asked for for a long time. Yeah, that “HD” moniker is a little corny; is everything “HD” this year? But the images I’ve seen taken with these tubes are impressive. Get them on the street in numbers and get a focal reducer out there with them, and I expect these CATs to be all the rage. But why no carbon fiber tube? And when will we be able to buy one? Ah, well.

Yeah, I wasn’t surprised to find China’s GSO peddling nice and nice-priced 16-inch Dobsonians. I was surprised when they began selling (through Orion and Astronomics) Ritchey-Chrétiens, real RCs, 6 and 8-inch RCs, not wannabes like Meade’s aplantic SCTs. These are very inexpensively priced, not much more than a comparable SCT OTA. Astronomics’ “Astronomy Technologies” badged scopes cost a little more than Orion’s, but come with carbon fiber tubes and quartz substrate mirrors. These scopes, the GSO sourced Astronomy Technologies RCs take The Dog. How do they perform? Amazingly well. Some users have had to replace droopy focusers, but, that done, the images are impressive, looking to naïve little me like what you’d expect from any RC. Supposedly, 10 and 12-inchers are on the way Real Soon Now.

Did you agree with all my awards? Not likely. That’s OK, though. What might be Real Fun is for y’all to send in comments (here, not on one of my Yahoogroups) outlining your picks and your “why.” You can even preface your comments with “Uncle Rod You Are a Nitwit” if you feel moved. Anyhow, that, ladies and Gentlemen, concludes this year’s award ceremony. A big hand for our winners!

This weekend was going to be the kickoff, as I hinted a little while back, for my new blog-series on deep sky observing. I was gonna hit it hard at the dark site and bring some material back for y’all for next week. Sigh. Don’ look like it. Wunderground.com has us at 80% cloud cover and 70% chance of precipitation for the weekend. You never know, but it looks like it will be vodka tonics (every dadgummed liquor store I tried was out of the ‘Yell) and Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD instead of Herschel Objects.

Comments:
Uncle Rod,
Great concept and wonderful layout. I would like to highly recommend Highpoint Scientific in W. NJ. Grant and Dave are superb to deal with. Very knowledgable and always willing to go above and beyond for the consumer. I've never heard one person say they had a bad experience shopping with them.

Oh yeah, the introduction of the Astro tech 8in F/4 imaging Newt might need to be considered. I picked up a prototype this spring at NEAF and am seriously delighted in the performance of this low priced imaging scope.

Clear skies,
Rodney
 
HI Rodney:

I am aware of that scope...looks like a good deal.
 
I'll never forget when Michio Kaku wanted to send the Cassini spacecraft careening into the sun to be destroyed, rather than fly by the earth for a gravitational assist, on the grounds that it might hit the earth and its plutonium capsule might break open and make somebody sick. I've never been able to trust his judgment since.
 
I didn't agree with him on that either, but it was a valid viewpoint IMHO, not a matter of judgment but opinion.
 
Uncle Rod, you realize you could do the show yourself and do it as a YouTube and possibly have a company representitves show up to receive the awards.

Terry
 
HI Terry:

I'd be great with that...as long as somebody provides enough free booze! :-)
 
I must mention another astronomy forum that is smaller, but cozier, than CloudyNights. It is the Astronomy Forum, with 19,069 users.
Running vBulletin® Version 3.8.3, it is easy to add photos and links to posts, and the topics are very focused. In addition, it is worldwide and provides forums in German, Italian and other languages.

I find Astromart's Forums hard to navigate, and it is difficult if not impossible to see older posts there.

Matthew Ota
 
Alas…while some LSes have worked great out of the box, a near equal number, it sounds like, didn’t, either being DOA or refusing to align themselves.

Okay, I don't have a dog in the Meade/Celestron rivalry, and I really want both companies to do well for, well, ever. But it seems like every Big Thing Meade has introduced in a long time has been plagued by bad, bad QA problems. Classic ETXs? People love 'em, except those that got one DOA. RCX/ACFs? Same thing. Now with the LS. I understand that there is variation in the samples and that the ones that work often work very, very well, like Charity Hope Valentine. But I wonder why there is so much variation in the first place, and why the company keeps letting things out with essentially the same spotty track record.

Good list, BTW!
 
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