Special issue abstracts

Special Issue (Special issue abstracts)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 3 November 2014



Issue, S. (2014), "Special issue abstracts", Kybernetes, Vol. 43 No. 9/10. https://doi.org/10.1108/K-11-2014-276



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Special issue abstracts

Article Type: Special issue abstracts From: Kybernetes, Volume 43, Issue 9/10

Acting to understand and understanding to act

Ranulph Glanville

Innovation Design Engineering, Royal College of Art, London, UK and CybernEthics Research, Southsea, UK


Purpose – To establish the essential centrality of a circular relationship between acting and understanding, and a role learning plays in this circularity, with special reference to Aristotle's Phronesis and Sophia. The purpose of this paper is to establish a position.

Design/methodology/approach – The argument is made through critical, cybernetic analysis and argument.

Findings – The argument reconceptualize key relationships in the approach to understanding the world, and in education.

Research limitations/implications – Research implications are not explored: the argument attempts to lay groundwork for other and later work.

Originality/value – The argument establishes a cybernetic circular causality to replace the currently preferred linear causality.

Keywords Practice, Understanding, Learning, Acting, Circularity, Constancy

Paper type Conceptual paper

Overcoming obstacles in learning cybernetic psychology

Philip Baron

University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa


Purpose – When reviewing the prospectus of mainstream universities that offer psychology majors, one would be hard-pressed to find any cybernetic approaches included in their course material. This is an unfortunate observation as most psychological problems arise in a relational context. Reasons for this status quo are presented. The purpose of this paper is to reduce obstacles for prospective learners in cybernetic psychology, with the hope that cybernetic psychology be assimilated and seen as an equal footing paradigm in mainstream psychology teachings.

Design/methodology/approach – A popular cybernetics website is often used by students who are learning cybernetic psychology. Using the responses from students who frequent the online resource, solutions are presented based on the questions that students have asked the author of the site.

Findings – Students are taught different therapy paradigms in terms of models; the psychodynamic model, the medical model, the person-centred model; the systems model and so forth. Their position to the model is external and they can critically evaluate the different models and apply each model in an interpretation and analysis of various psychology case studies. Cybernetic psychology becomes problematic when that line of thinking is used.

Practical implications – Cybernetic psychology stands as an ethical choice for therapy. Reducing the boundaries for cybernetic therapies to be assimilated in the mainstream context, especially as offered by universities as an equal footing paradigm, would be in keeping with the WHO's call for responsible ethical therapy interventions.

Originality/value – There is limited information on how to perform cybernetic psychology. This is understandable owing to the nature of cybernetics; however, reliable and stable approaches should still be available for students who are new to this epistemology. There needs to be an entering point into this way of thinking so that cybernetic psychology remains accessible to new comers.

Keywords Cybernetics, Psychology, Therapy, Systems, Causality, Model

Paper type Conceptual paper

Contextual inquiry and socio-technical practice

Peter Bednar

School of Computing, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK, and

Christine Elizabeth Welch

Portsmouth Business School, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK


Purpose – During discussions at the ASC 2013 Conference, the authors were stimulated to consider acting, learning and understanding in the context of organizational change, and in particular the relationship between organizational actors and external analysts. The purpose of this paper is to review from a cybernetic perspective how a socio-technical toolbox can help to facilitate organizational change, and to examine issues involved in use of such a toolbox by organizational actors supported by expert analysts.

Design/methodology/approach – The paper is conceptual and adopts a critical stance, i.e. to provide support for emancipation of individuals through ownership and control of their own analyses.

Findings – Drawing on work by e.g., Bateson, the authors consider organizations as dynamic and complex human activity systems, and how actors can be helped to develop a productive learning "spiral" of acting and reflecting by means of a proposed socio-technical toolbox. Acting and reflecting upon action can be seen to form a "double helix" of learning, leading to richer understandings of contextual dependencies. Engaged actors need support to surface their contextually dependent understandings, individual and collectively and engage in a "dance of change".

Practical implications – Change is endemic in organizational life. When engaging with change activity that attempts to address complexity (as opposed to complicatedness), contextual experts need to be the key decision takers. This means a redistribution not only of responsibility and action but also decision-taking power.

Originality/value – The paper suggests augmentation of traditional socio-technical methods to address dynamic complexity.

Keywords Socio-technical systems, Change management, Contextual dependencies, Analysis practice

Paper type Conceptual Paper

Applying cybernetic thinking to becoming to a learning organization

Kesiena Mercy Clement-Okooboh and Bill Olivier

Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton, Bolton, UK


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to provide a case study of the application of cybernetic thinking by the learning and development unit in a national branch of a large multinational company to help move towards its strategic objective of becoming a learning organization.

Design/methodology/approach – A work-based action research approach was adopted. Through a series of action research cycles, the paper presents the interplay between developments in the organization and several strands of cybernetic thinking.

Findings – Cybernetic thinking was incrementally integrated to create a new support framework for developing a learning organization.

Research limitations/implications – As a case study the work reported has limited generality. Users of the support framework need to take account of and, to some degree, replicate the specific conditions that led to its success. These included the strategic aim of becoming a learning organization and supportive senior management.

Practical implications – The case study and framework will be of greatest use to other organizations that have the strategic intent of becoming a learning organization, but seek guidance on implementation.

Social implications – Cybernetic thinking was used to create feedback loops from internal and external conditions, to enhance learning, performance and adaptivity. This involved all employees in their and their organization's future development.

Originality/value – The paper's value offers a concrete instance of applying cybernetic thinking to the creation of a learning organization, a task often found to be difficult in practice. This has been abstracted into a support framework.

Keywords Cybernetics, VSM, Double loop learning, Kirkpatrick, Learning organization, Training evaluation

Paper type Research paper

Effects of variety reduction and amplification in circular feedback systems

Thomas Fischer

Department of Architecture, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present the result of an experiment examining the effects of changing input and output channel variety in an optical feedback system and their potential to give rise to novelty, as some non-trivial systems do.

Design/methodology/approach – The experimental design is based on a digital computer connected to a digital photo camera (input channel), and to a monitor screen (output channel). The camera is pointed at the monitor to form a circular feedback system. Monitor and camera resolutions constitute the variable input and output variety of the system, allowing the visual investigation of effects of variety reduction and variety amplification in circular feedback systems.

Findings – Results suggest that variety amplification in input and/or output channels promotes the emergence of discernible novelty in the apparent absence of a creative/generative capability or agenda within the recursive system.

Research limitations/implications – An analogy between an optical feedback system and human novelty generation is shown, while generalizability of observations made beyond the described experiment remains to be established.

Originality/value – A new approach to the computational modelling of aspects of human creativity is presented. Photographic investigation of variety reduction and variety amplification is new, and hoped to be of value to those wishing to examine these theoretical concepts in concrete terms.

Keywords Re-entry, Variety reduction, Variety amplification, Creativity, Visual analogy

Paper type Research paper

Understanding and learning to reconcile differences between disciplines through constructing an artificial personality

Faisal L. Kadri

ArtificialPsychology.com, Montreal, Canada


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate the conflicting varieties between cognitive linguistics and animal motivation on one hand and between emotions and motivations on another, and to show how the construction of an artificial personality led to understanding the differences from a cybernetic perspective, and to reconcile and benefit from them.

Design/methodology/approach – The design of the artificial personality is built on a core of dual regulator structure as a model of motivation and cognition. The regulating core does not address areas of linguistics and emotions, thus the need to interface with functions from well-researched disciplines in these areas as peripheries to the core. Different disciplines were viewed from a cybernetic perspective, where the variety of categories primarily used in these disciplines was compared numerically and the problem was defined as a search for methods to reducing the varieties between disciplines.

Findings – The interfaces between the core of artificial personality and the peripheries are seen as either regulators, which reduce variety, or generators of variety.

Originality/value – The approach to reconcile cross-disciplinary differences based on comparing the numerical variety of categories is understood to be original. The reduction of comparison to numerical counts removes hard-to-reconcile qualitative differences and retains the simplicity of quantitative differences. Qualitative cross-disciplinary differences benefit the specialists and protect them from competition with each other. By reconciling cross-disciplinary differences the artificial personality develops across disciplines and achieves multi-disciplinary transparency. The specialists may not welcome the competition but science, technology and society in general will benefit from reduced duplication, improved information flow and integration. This work is a small step in understanding and learning to reconcile differences between disciplines.

Keywords Cybernetics, Multi-disciplinary, Cognitive linguistics, Motivation, Emotions

Paper type Conceptual paper

Understanding, action, and the use of the cane in Sri Lankan schools

Chathurika Sewwandi Kannangara

The Department of Psychology, The University of Bolton, Bolton, UK, and

David Griffiths

The Institute for Educational Cybernetics, The University of Bolton, Bolton, UK


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to consider the use of corporal punishment in schools in Sri Lanka, and to offer reflections on how cybernetics could shed light on its persistence despite initiatives to ban it.

Design/methodology/approach – The ASC 2013 Heinz von Foerster Award for the most significant contribution to the conference was awarded following discussion of the use of the cane in Sri Lankan schools. This paper provides a personal account of difficulties in overcoming the use of corporal punishment in a school in Sri Lanka.

Findings – The Sri Lankan education system is introduced. The response of the ASC 2013 is discussed. The feedback between social forces and the education system is seen as being too complex for analysis, and Bateson's conception of ethos is proposed as an appropriate starting point for making progress on this issue.

Social implications – The use of corporal punishment has been forbidden by the Ministry of Education, but the practice evidently continues and there is evidence that this has negative impact on young people. The paper offers an approach to understanding the reasons for the prevalence and persistence of corporal punishment, as a first step towards designing measures to eliminate it.

Originality/value – The paper takes a new approach to understanding the persistence of corporal punishment in Sri Lanka by applying Bateson's concepts of ethos and schismogenesis.

Keywords Sri Lanka, School, Bateson, Corporal punishment, Schismogenesis, Violence

Paper type Conceptual paper

Second-order error; error that illuminates context

Ted Krueger

School of Architecture, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, USA


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to propose a novel classification of errors.

Design/methodology/approach – A review of the classification of errors in several disciplines is undertaken.

Findings – The role of errors in the delineation of the frameworks in which they occur is suggested.

Keywords Design, Framework, Second-order error, System

Paper type Research paper

The communication of expectations and individual understanding: redundancy as reduction of uncertainty, and the processing of meaning

Loet Leydesdorff

Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Mark William Johnson

Institute of Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton, Bolton, UK, and

Inga A. Ivanova

School of Business and Public Administration, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present the case for an analysis of communication at the supra-individual level as a means of rendering the understanding of learning and acting tractable. The paper introduces a method of analysis of redundancy to achieve this.

Design/methodology/approach – The paper argue for a supra-individual approach to acting, learning, and understanding against focusing on an individual or quasi-transcendental "observer". The argument is outlined in four steps: first, articulation of the dynamics of the communication system; second, consideration of the redundancies of expectations within communication; third, the computation of anticipation which enables the authors to model meaning processing; fourth, the feedback of meaning processing on information processing can be measured as redundancy. Anticipated future states can reflexively drive reconstructions in meaning-processing systems.

Research limitations/implications – The social system can be considered as a symbolic order of coordination mechanisms. Reflexive agency can access this order and partake in it. However, expectations and their structures do not "exist", but remain uncertain with the status of hypotheses. Historical embodiment in intentional action is structurally coupled to the order of expectations. The historical instantiations condition and enable the further development of the expectations as a retention mechanism.

Originality/value – The modeling and measurement of meaning processing in terms of inversion of the arrow of time and the generation of redundancy provide extensions to the mathematical theory of communication.

Keywords Intersubjectivity, Anticipatory systems, Codification, Expectation, Meaning, Redundancy

Paper type Conceptual paper

Design transformations: teaching design through evaluations

Ann Morrison and Hendrik Knoche

Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to synchronize two courses to focus on the students working with learning and applying tools in the one course and acting on understandings gained to produce artefacts in the other.

Design/methodology/approach – Working with real users throughout all stages of the design process, the authors structured two courses so findings from the evaluation methods learnt in the one course (their analyses) were directly acted on in the other (their re-designs). The authors fostered a group-spirited learning environment where students presented designs-in-process; explained the findings from focused evaluation methods using tangible representations; identified the relationship from these findings for subsequent re-design rationales; and discussed and critiqued each other's work using multiple feedback, teach-back and discursive strategies.

Findings – The authors found that in-depth coverage of material, working with real data and users at all stages of assessment and producing visualizations from evaluations, naturally forced student motivation to act and redesign better solutions. The authors noted improved attendance and students reported high engagement and content appreciation.

Research limitations/implications – Ensuring relevance, by adding larger context concerns, expansive critical methods and feedback processes in a cycle of understanding, acting, learning can have useful practical and social implications. This is germane when designing for quality of everyday use in, for example, education, urban environments and mobile applications.

Practical implications – The paper includes implications for the development of learning environments where course and semester content is developed in tandem to support integrated learning by acting with project output and teach back "presentations" throughout the course.

Originality/value – The paper proposes a unifying tandem approach to learning and applying evaluation tools with real users, teachback and acting to improve redesigns with potential to improve human computer interaction educational standards for learning and design outcomes.

Keywords Evaluation, Design, Tangible, Learning environments

Paper type Case study

Triple-loop learning and conversing with reality

Martin Reynolds

Department of Engineering and Innovation, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK


Purpose – Three levels of learning developed by Gregory Bateson in the tradition of second-order cybernetics have in-part been translated in terms of double-loop and triple-loop learning (TLL), particularly in the tradition of systems thinking. Learning III and TLL have gained less popularity since they deal with less tangible issues regarding virtues of wisdom and justice, respectively. The purpose of this paper is to provide a learning device – the systems thinking in practice (STiP) heuristic – which helps to retrieve the cybernetic concern for wisdom in association with an often forgotten systems concern for real-world power relations.

Design/methodology/approach – Using "conversation" as a metaphor the heuristic is introduced based on three orders of conversation. Drawing on ideas of systemic triangulation, another heuristic device – the systemic triangulator – is used to surface issues of power in the three orders of conversation. Some manifestations in using the STiP heuristic for supporting postgraduate systems learning are demonstrated.

Findings – Some key complementarities between conventionally opaque cybernetic issues of wisdom and systems issues of power are revealed, and used proactively to explore more effective coaching of STiP.

Research limitations/implications – Cybernetics and Systems thinking may benefit from being grounded more in understanding, engaging with, and transforming social realities. The heuristics provide practical experiential and meaningful learning through conversation, and more social premium for the study of cybernetics and systems thinking.

Originality/value – The heuristics – STiP, and the systemic triangulator – provides an innovative cyber-systemic space for learning and action.

Keywords Systemic triangulation, Systemic triangulator, Systems thinking in practice, Triple-loop learning

Paper type Conceptual paper

Education as a subversive activity: a proposal

Larry Richards

Indiana University East, Richmond, Indiana, USA


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present a case for a change of educational system, rather than a change in the current system. A rudimentary framework for an alternative educational system is proposed.

Design/methodology/approach – Cybernetic and educational literature supports an alternative approach to education. Design principles are identified for an alternative system.

Findings – For the desirable integration of curricular and pedagogical principles to be realized in an educational system, a non-hierarchical organizational structure is required. The icosahedral structure that embeds Stafford Beer's syntegration process provides such a default structure. Such a structure would be subversive in the current society.

Social implications – The implementation of the proposed system of schools could transform society by offering an alternative way of thinking about the structure of organizations like schools, as well as political and economic organizations. In so doing, fully participative democratic processes could be realized and sustained.

Originality/value – The use of the icosahedral structure as a framework for creating a system of schools world-wide is new and has value for anyone contemplating alternative educational systems.

Keywords Teaching, Learning, Conversation, Action and understanding, Knowledge and wisdom, Non-hierarchical systems

Paper type Conceptual paper

Learning about learning: a cybernetic model of skill acquisition

Bernard Scott

Centre for Sociocybernetics Research, Germany, and

Abhinav Bansal

School of Mathematics and Computer Applications, Thapar University, Patiala, India


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explain some phenomena observed in the acquisition of motor skills: the loss of conscious access to knowledge of the structure of a skill and the awareness that an error has been made prior to the receipt of knowledge of results. Although there are rich descriptive accounts of skill acquisition in the literature, there are no satisfactory explanatory models of the cognitive processes involved. The paper provides such a model.

Design/methodology/approach – In the 1970s, the first author implemented a computer program model of the cognitive processes involved in learning and skill acquisition, based on a series of empirical investigations. Recently, with assistance from the second author, the model has been reviewed, updated and re-implemented. The paper sets this work in the broader context of a theory of learning and teaching, conversation theory.

Findings – The model provides a constructivist account of skill acquisition and associated phenomena. The model provides theoretical foundations for conversation theory.

Practical implications – The model adds to the understanding of motor skill acquisition and to the understanding of processes of learning and teaching in general.

Originality/value – The model and its interpretation are an original contribution to the skills acquisition literature.

Keywords Learning, Second-order cybernetics, Cognitive model, Conversation theory, Skill acquisition

Paper type Research paper

A multi-perspective approach to knowledge production

William Seaman

Department of Media Arts & Sciences, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to discuss a multi-perspective approach to knowledge production in terms of a set of cybernetic concepts relevant to the approach; to describe a software system that computationally embodies the approach; and to articulate a research project that pragmatically employs the approach.

Design/methodology/approach – A definition is provided. The paper uses a survey methodology, exploring relevant cybernetic and contemporary technological concepts. An operational software mechanism (The Insight Engine) is discussed that enables the bridging of transdisciplinary concepts by a user in the service of accretive research – recombinant informatics.

Findings – Many cybernetic concepts are relevant to contemporary research into cognition and Neosentience research. More study needs to be undertaken related to historical BCL projects in terms of articulating relevance to contemporary research.

Research limitations/implications – Future research seeks to extend the computational functionality of "The Insight Engine", as well as uncover relevant BCL/cybernetic materials.

Practical implications – The software is unique in the field and already there is interest in its use by differing research communities including the Duke Institute For Brain Sciences, and at Stanford, research under Ian Hodder.

Social implications – The Insight Engine has potential to be used as a multi-perspective tool for many different fields enabling different forms of distributed, transdisciplinary team-based research.

Originality/value – This text is valuable to researchers interested in new forms of interface, augmentation of thought and learning via computational approaches; and the development of bridges between novel research areas, including contemporary, historical BCL and other cybernetic inquiry.

Keywords Computing a reality, Intelligence amplification, Knowledge production, Multi-perspective approach, Second order cybernetics

Paper type Conceptual paper

Multiple perspectives on the terms "cyberneticist" versus "cybernetician": from a group of ASC Conference participants

Tirumala Rao Vinnakota

Business Systems and Cybernetics Centre, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Hyderabad, India

Faisal L. Kadri

ArtificialPsychology.com, Montreal, Canada

Simon Grant

Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton, Bolton, UK

Ludmila Malinova

Department of System Analysis, University of Economics in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic

Peter Davd Tuddenham

College of Exploration, Potomac Falls, Virginia, USA, and

Santiago Garcia

Financiera Maderera S.A., Santiago De Compostela, Spain


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate and clarify possible distinctions between the terms "cyberneticist" and "cybernetician" with the intention of helping the growth of the cybernetics discipline in new directions.

Design/methodology/approach – After the American Society for Cybernetics ALU 2013 Conference in Bolton, a small group of conference participants continued the conversations they had begun during the event, focusing on the comparison of the terms "cyberneticist" vs "cybernetician". The group felt the need for clearer distinctions drawn (or designed) between the terms, in order to sustain the discipline of cybernetics and to support its growth. The aim of providing these distinctions is that theory should feed into practice and practice should feed into theory, forming a cybernetic loop, so that the discipline of cybernetics is sustained while growing. The conference participants had conversations between themselves, and came up with multiple perspectives on the distinction between "cyberneticist" vs "cybernetician". The distinctions drawn mirror the distinctions between Science and Design: the science of cybernetics contrasted with the design of cybernetics.

Findings – The findings of this paper consist of recommendations to understand and act differently in the field of the discipline of cybernetics. In particular, a clear distinction is suggested between the terms "cyberneticist" and "cybernetician". It is also suggested that in order for cybernetics to grow and be sustained, there should be a constant flow of developments in theory of cybernetics into the practice of cybernetics and vice-versa.

Originality/value – The authors believe that some people (called "cyberneticists") should work on the science side of cybernetics, making strong contributions to the understanding and development of cybernetics theory. Others, (called "cyberneticians") should work on the design side of cybernetics, to contribute through their actions and through the development of cybernetics practice. The result of this will be a self-organization that evolves naturally between theory and practice of cybernetics, leading to better learning of cybernetics, and in the process, sustaining it through continued growth. In this direction, the paper proposes several radical suggestions that may not be to the liking of traditionalists, but may be better received by the scientists and designers of cybernetics who can make a difference to the growth of the discipline of cybernetics.

Keywords Cyberneticist, Cybernetician, Cybernetics, Understanding, Acting, Learning, Science of cybernetics, Design of cybernetics, Practice of cybernetics

Paper type Viewpoint

Making distinctions: reflections on learning, knowing and evaluating

S.D. Noam Cook

Department of Philosophy, San José State University, San Jose, California, USA


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to offer some reflections on "making distinctions", which in contrast to "separating". The author views as unifying rather than dividing. The author remarks follow the theme of the conference, "Acting-Learning-Understanding", and characterize making distinctions as inherently cybernetic both conceptually and in practice. The classic cybernetic principle of error detection and correction, for example, typically has a lopsided focus on "error". The author treats it as the on-going single act of distinguishing between "error" and "correct", where determine the degree to which a system is in error is simultaneously determining the degree to which it is correct.

Design/methodology/approach – This paper presents a viewpoint though conceptual analysis, reflection, and critique, drawing on examples form the research (employing ethnography, case studies, observation, and participant observation) and consulting.

Findings – In practice the author detects "correct" no less than "error". Learning entails both "error" and "correct". Although commonly held that the author learn best (or only) from error, the author argues sometimes the author can best (or only) learn from what goes right. Acting entails knowing. This calls for distinguishing between knowledge, as a storable, transferrable "thing", and knowing as part of shared practice. Understanding entails evaluating. Distinguishing between morally acceptable and unacceptable, for example, can set, confirm, or change norms for distinguishing "error" and "correct". Accordingly, evaluating needs to be a deliberate part of cybernetic and systems thinking and practice.

Research limitations/implications – Presents four areas where further research could fruitfully be pursued: assessing the distinct function of "correct" within various kinds of systems; designing and testing educational and organizational activities for learning from what goes right; designing and testing organizational and technological infrastructures that support "knowing" as coordinated designed activity; and, designing and testing means for the deliberate incorporation of evaluating as part of systems thinking and practice.

Practical implications – Suggests that educational and organizational activities could be more productive by foster learning from what goes right. Suggests there is value in the development of organizational and technological infrastructures that support "knowing" as coordinated designed activity (versus "knowledge" seen as a storable, transferable "thing"). Suggests that the deliberate inclusion of evaluating in social and organizational systems could further more responsive and responsible action.

Social implications – Contributes to call for publically viable forms of cybernetic and systemic thinking and practice, including the systemic inclusion of evaluation in public affairs.

Originality/value – Contributes to the conceptual development and constructive critique of key concepts in cybernetic and systems thinking and practice, especially understanding making distinctions as unifying rather than separating, and as inherently cybernetic as such. Offers a critique of the common focus on "error" in error detection and correction. Argues for the importance of learning from what goes right. Identifies the need for a better understanding of "knowing" as part of practice (as distinct from "knowledge" as a storable, sharable "thing"). Argues for the need to treat evaluation as an inherent, necessary, and productive part of systems thinking and practice.

Paper type Viewpoint

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