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December 11, 2003

Xanthines of Ur
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM *

In the wake of my posting a link to a Sumerian Dictionary site in Particles, Dan Blum writes:

I have to say that I am a little suspicious of a Sumerian dictionary that includes the Sumerian word for “chocolate.”
By Ghu, he’s right. There it is: sukulutu. This is dubious indeed. Sukulutu is phonetically way too similar to “chocolate,” a word derived from the 16th C. Spanish word chocolatal, which was either the Spaniards’ version of the Aztec word xocoatl (or cacahuatl), or the Spaniards’ munged version of an older Mayan word, cacahuaquchtl. It gets complicated.

This known date of origin interacts badly with the history of Sumerian, which died out as a spoken language around the 18th C. BCE, though it hung on as a written language until the 1st C. CE. This misses by several centuries the earliest known Mayan use of words related to “chocolate”, not to mention the Mayans and Sumerians were on different and non-communicating continents; and even if they weren’t, you’d have the problem of how a Mayan word got adopted into a language that hadn’t been spoken for a couple of millennia.

Besides, if Sumerian had had a word for chocolate, that would have been cool, and we would have heard about it.

Comments on Xanthines of Ur:
#1 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 05:14 PM:

I commend you for your use of BCE and CE. My students think I am loony for insisting they do as well. Nice to know I'm not alone.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 05:38 PM:

If I'm writing notes for my own use, I still use AD and BC; but I try to remember to use CE and BCE in public. I've also learned to say "Constantinople" rather than "Byzantium", and am working on "Istanbul".

#3 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 05:58 PM:

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

* * *

" . . . you92d have the problem . . ."

Problem? I call that a challenge!

#4 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 06:05 PM:

Hmmm, I guess that makes moot the question I had: did the Sumerians prefer dark or milk chocolate?

#5 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 06:33 PM:

Teresa, didn't you realize it? You've stumbled onto linguistic proof of the migration of the Nephites.

The ancient Sumerian word was undoubtedly something meaning "ambrosia" or "mana" (ie. "food of the gods") which the Nephites picked up along with other ancient old world words, and when they ran into people in the new world with something they called "food of the gods," they applied the old Sumerian word, which went through successive morphings until it became "chocolate."

The original chocolate was also probably "white and delightful" until at some point it was cursed with melanin.

#6 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 07:39 PM:

Of course, my first reaction was: what if the Sumerians did have contact with the precursors to the Mayans (or even the Olmec, one presumes)? Maybe chocolate was a gift from the Enki! Wouldn't that make a neat story?

I am so doomed. Like I have any free time left...

#7 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 08:46 PM:

This seems totally plausible to me right now, head-deep in the Book of the New Sun.

#8 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 11:02 PM:

Then again, there's apparently proven chemical analysis of some kind of cocaine preparation in a few mummies. Don't know the research, but have seen (or listened to it, it is often on while I'm working.... ) a couple of programs on History and Science Channels on it. They're not sure how, but the analysis of the chemicals says it's like cocaine. Which is a New World plant.

#9 ::: Madeline ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 12:50 AM:

Cocaine, chocolate, strawberries, tomatoes, and potatoes... There aren't a whole lot of staple crops from the New World, but I guess we can be proud of what there is.

(I'm actually waiting for people to chime in with, "Hey, you forgot to mention blah!" I love plant-tracking, as much as word-tracking, really.)

#10 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 01:04 AM:

Modern strawberries are actually a hybrid of old world strawberries and new world strawberries.

You're forgetting corn and pineapple, as well as turkeys and avocados. Likewise buffalo.

I'm not certain whether peppers originated in China and were brought to Mexico or vice versa, or if the two different varieties were moved around.

Then there are things like, say, ducks and plums, which have different varieties in the old and new worlds.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 01:09 AM:

Er. Um. Earliest evidence of human friendship with cocoa pods really is about two millennia later than the heyday of the Sumerians. They were way back. Of course, we may find out someday that cocoa trees were being sweet-talked and admired and cuddled up to a lot earlier than we'd thought; but so far we don't know that.

I'm being a poop, right? Y'all want to believe in the existence of a Sumerian word for chocolate, because it would be Vastly Cool.

Well. And so it would.

What's the Sumerian for "Ten thousand chocolate-munching Nephite youths on the backs of their thundering war-tapirs"?

#12 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 01:57 AM:

I don't know. It looks like the Urim and the Thummim aren't Windows compatible.

Anyone know if they work with Mac or Linux?

#13 ::: Joy Ralph ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 09:10 AM:

I don't know. It looks like the Urim and the Thummim aren't Windows compatible.

Anyone know if they work with Mac or Linux?

Only if you're running Red Hat.

#14 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 11:29 AM:

Earliest evidence of human friendship with cocoa pods really is about two millennia later than the heyday of the Sumerians.

But, on the other hand, as long as we're speculating (and that's all I'm doing), it's not as if you couldn't make a case for the fact that we couldn't really be sure, since pre-Olmec peoples of Mesoamerica didn't have written language, so far as we know.

The Mayan word may be the first one we think existed, but if there was an Olmec word it was taken from, one could speculate there were pre-Olmec peoples who were aware of and consumed the blessed chocolate... they just didn't record it for us. And the gap then becomes 'unknown'. Why, human cultivation of chocolate as a foodstuff might stretch back through centuries of trbial and verbal history now lost to us!

I'm stretching here, aren't I?

Look, I like alternate histories, I can do what I want with them. :)

#15 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 11:56 AM:

Oh, come on. The guy spells magic with a 'K'. How much can we really expect?

#16 ::: travis ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 12:18 PM:

I have a feeling that this "Sumerian Dictionary" was put together by one of those rubes that are trying to link Lovecraft's Necronomicon with some "real" Babylonian/Sumerian magical text.

#17 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 03:12 PM:
I have a feeling that this "Sumerian Dictionary" was put together by one of those rubes that are trying to link Lovecraft's Necronomicon with some "real" Babylonian/Sumerian magical text.

You appear to be correct based on the rest of the site, which has material about "real" magic and the Necronomicon in a tone that leads to believe the writer is not joking. Although you never know.

I do note that the site's Sumerian FAQ seems reasonably sane, although I'm hardly an expert.

I should also note that it's too bad there's nothing working on the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project's page, nor can I find any of the volumes on the Penn Museum Press site as they suggest (I know they've published at least one, though, I saw volume "B" in the Penn bookstore long about 1986).

As for alternate history, I'd buy that the Olmecs cultivated chocolate, but I don't know that I'd buy that and that the Sumerians sailed over to get some. Phoenicians, maybe.

#18 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 03:44 PM:

It makes it tidier if I stick with the "The gods did it" explanation, doesn't it?

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 03:52 PM:

"The gods did it" doesn't count. It's like declaring that you have an anything-proof force field when you're playing shoot-'em-up.

That dictionary's looking less reliable by the minute.

#20 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 04:27 PM:

Oh, come on. The guy spells magic with a 'K'. How much can we really expect?

Um, some people who practice magic do that to distinguish between inspirational magic (the kind that fills the same spiritual role as prayer does for Sinai Triad religionists) and stage magic (the kind that fills the stages of Vegas).

I prefer to let context be my friend, but I do practice inspirational magic. Whether you believe in it or not, he's not just perpetrating an archaism for its own sake.

#21 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 05:06 PM:

I'm sure it can all be cleared up quite simply with an explanation that involves Noah's Ark or another Flood story.

After the deluge, cocoa was given to the people who were ancestors of the Sumerians.

Unfortunately, their environment was not conducive to growing cocoa. So they ate what they had, and the rest was lost. The secret of sukulutu was mostly transmitted verbally, so was forgotten.

Cocoa survived in the Americas because the Flood failed to reach the tops of the Andes. Or maybe cocoa trees were swallowed by a whale, which was then beached when the waters receeded. The cocoa plants then grew out of the whale's carcass.

#22 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 05:09 PM:

"I have a feeling that this "Sumerian Dictionary" was put together by one of those rubes that are trying to link Lovecraft's Necronomicon with some "real" Babylonian/Sumerian magical text."

Does he try to link C'Thulu to sukulutu, implying that R'lyeh is sort of a sunken, cyclopean, non-Euclidean Hershey Park?

#23 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 05:30 PM:

Jon, that's a neat idea, regarding the Flood -- I think there may even be a Sumerian apocryphal Flood story. Can I steal it and play with it?

Otherwise, I had other ideas.

#24 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 06:05 PM:

Xopher:

Members of my immediate family have been wiccans for decades. I've known exactly what magic with a "k" is used to mean for a long time.

I still think it's painfully silly.

So...who's up for a tall, cool glass of Chocolate Shoggoth Milk?

#25 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 07:02 PM:

Shoggoth Milk of any sort is very expensive, because you need to replace the milk maids every few days.

(It would be cheaper, and perhaps kinder, if they just died, rather than spending the rest of their natural lives howling at the top of their lungs and bouncing off the rubber walls of their, ahm, retirement facility.)

#26 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 09:00 PM:

Members of my immediate family have been wiccans for decades. I've known exactly what magic with a "k" is used to mean for a long time.

Then you should know that that usage doesn't automatically make a person a fool, or their other opinions dismissable.

And everyone should know that just because someone employs one "painfully silly" usage does not mean that everything they do or think is equally silly. There's other evidence, as cited upthread, that the dictionary is unreliable.

#27 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 09:02 PM:

Evidence that Dr. Zeus, Inc. Company operatives were messing around in ancient Sumer.

They're literally addicted to chocolate a.k.a. Theobromos -- a psychoactive substance in immortals.

I find Kage Baker as often annoying as funny, but that's too good to miss.

#28 ::: Stuart Buck ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 10:29 AM:

I know this is off-topic, but I'm curious about the comments above on BC/AD vs. BCE/CE. I've always found it puzzling that people would prefer the latter. Is it because BC/AD refers to Christ? But the dating system is the same -- 1900 AD = 1900 CE. So this hypothetical "Common Era" was concocted so as to coincide with the old dating system, i.e., by starting at 0 right around the time of Christ. But if the object was to get rid of dates that are calculated with reference to Christ, why not invent a new dating system altogether, rather than coming up with new initials that really describe the exact same thing?

#29 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 10:41 AM:
But if the object was to get rid of dates that are calculated with reference to Christ, why not invent a new dating system altogether, rather than coming up with new initials that really describe the exact same thing?

Because no one would use a new dating system, if one were devised?

#30 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 11:01 AM:

"So...who's up for a tall, cool glass of Chocolate Shoggoth Milk?"

I can just see the factory tour...

"As you can see, this is where we make the Tainted Seed of Nyarlathotep. On your left is where we make Tainted Seed of Nyarlathotep with Almonds... oh, sorry, that's the old nomenclature. I'm an old timer. You know them as Kisses."

#31 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 11:09 AM:

Stuart Buck: It isn't simply that BC and AD "refer" to Jesus. Remember that A. D. stands for "Anno Domini" or "Year of the Lord." He's not my lord, monkeyboy.

#32 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 02:39 PM:

I try to use the BCE and CE because as a school teacher I try to be as inclusive as possible. As Alan said, Jesus is not everyones lord. There are theist tendencies in our culture which can make school alienating for atheist, agnostic, or just non-judeo-christian children. I try to do my little part to make school as welcoming as I can for ALL students. And of course, coming up with my own dating system would rather confuse things, it's hard enough to convince middle school kids that they should be learning art history as well as having fun making stuff out of clay. (You should hear their kvetching when I make them write papers!) It's all worth it when a former student returns to tell me that their college art history class was really easy because they had covered most of the info in the 8th grade with me.

#33 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 03:23 PM:

Another thing about BC/AD vs. BCE/CE is that the dating of Jesus's life is a bit fuzzy.

Considering the precision of standards for things like weights and measures, the prospect of using BC/AD, which could be off by several years, can't be very attractive.

#34 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 04:03 PM:

So this hypothetical "Common Era" was concocted so as to coincide with the old dating system, i.e., by starting at 0 right around the time of Christ.

Actually, starting at 1.

And I think it started out as "Christian Era." And there is a Hebrew calendar, which predates the Christian one; CE is to talk about the Era most commonly in use by the world.

#35 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 06:22 PM:

We used to read it as "Before Crucifixion" and "After Death."

#36 ::: Isabeau ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 08:40 PM:

Am I the only one who saw "xanthine" and thought "Piers Anthony"?

#37 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 10:02 AM:

Rachael: I find it a bit amusing that you use `inclusiveness' to justify using the neologisms `BCE' and `CE', yet then proceed to say that `our culture' has `theist tendencies'. This isn't right unless you believe that that culture stops at the edges of the US. What you say doesn't even apply to Canada, let alone Europe...

(There could easily be people reading this from France, a country famed for militant anti-clericalism for two centuries. What terms do they now use for AD and BC? ... well, oops, it looks like the putative inventor of the term BC (Denis Patau) was French --- although pre-Revolutionary --- and they resist changing as much as anyone else. It doesn't help that BCE and CE are *English* acronyms, of course... :) )


If we're really trying to strip all those nasty theistic references away, then most of the names of the months and days of the week need changing, too --- although I'd not recommend doing it the way the dictator of Turkmenistan recently did --- apparently he has delusions of being a Roman emperor. (`Turkmenbashi' as a name for January doesn't trip off the tongue, y'know.)

#38 ::: alkali ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 11:54 AM:

My working hypothesis: the Sumerians ate all the Old World chocolate.

#39 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 02:13 PM:

Hmm, thinking... actually, I guess I was thinking even more narrowly then U.S., larger than my district, smaller than my state. I was not thinking of the culture of this board, which is of course both bigger and smaller than the cultures in my classroom (bigger geographically as you say, people from several continents no doubt, smaller in that we are to some extent similar in our use of computers, drawn to the view points expressed by Teresa and so on.) Rereading my own post the tone was not perhaps what I intended.

I teach at a new school which draws students and teachers from a number of districts. We are a voluntary integration school which features interdisciplinary education and the arts to draw diverse students together. We strive to balance the very divergent cultures of 10 districts and the urban/suburban differences as well as the usual class, religious, and ethnic differences of a metro school culture. So trying to be welcoming to all students is really important and students and staff are being exposed to cultural differences that even the most well-traveled and open-minded would not have expected.

I meant in my earlier post simply that the particularly Christian flavor of BC and AD is off putting to kids from other traditions. And Minnesota was until relatively recently a vast majority Judeo-Christian place. We now have students from Mung and East African traditions and in my school a noticeable increase in both Buddhist and atheist students.

I don't think you can eliminate all religious references from life, nor would we want to. In fact as someone who teaches art history I spend a lot of time teaching kids about religious art from many cultures and eras. Unless you focus exclusively on 20 Century art history you have to. But I do think that the overtly Judeo Christian references that are common in the Twin Cities Metro area schools are off-putting for some students. My agenda was no larger than that.

None of which has anything to do with the far more interesting issue of Sumerian chocolate consumption. Sorry, I really didn't intend to derail the thread.

#40 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 02:19 PM:

And, I should add, it's hard to see references that are problamatic from within the culture. I was raised firmly within the Judeo-Christian/Lutheren traditions of the Minnesotan dominant culture and the month names never occured to me. I don't get the sense that they bother anyone though, do you?

#41 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 02:48 PM:

The calendar system that bugs the hell out of me is BP. No, not British Petroleum. Before Present. In theory, this is used for dates where we're giving rough estimates -- 8,000 BP, or what have you. However, I've read articles where they've lost track of that, and write things like "2,643 BP."

Unfortunately, I've not yet perfected a method of reaching through a printed page and strangling its author.

#42 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2003, 01:00 PM:

Alter, you'd have hated to live in Ancient Egypt, where the year system started anew with each Pharaoh. They didn't write which Pharaoh's reference frame they were in, either. Of course, they basically invented history (the practice of recording things that happened and trying to make sense of them, not the whole chain of events), so a few initial glitches can perhaps be forgiven.

Egyptologists must be a hardy lot; I'd go insane inside a week.

#43 ::: Francis Deblauwe ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2003, 03:23 PM:

Actually, doesn't "BP" stand for "years before 1950" when the carbon dating method was approximately introduced?

#44 ::: Francis Deblauwe ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2003, 03:34 PM:

The whole BC/AD or BCE/CE discussion gets a little silly. They're just abbreviations, not spelled out anymore, just like, e.g., a.m. and p.m. ("ante meridiem" and "post meridiem" or "before/after noon"). US culture has a Christian frame of reference. That may change with time but in the meantime people of non-Christian persuasions have learnt to live with that. Look at the kids: they're smart about this. Muslim kids insist on celebrating the 'Id el-Fitr as well as Santa Claus. It's just convenience. One can rename all kinds of things, make them "neutral" but people don't grow up, live in a neutral world. Look at the metric system: being European myself, I fully agree that the metric system is easier, more coherent, better structured, etc. than the Anglo-Saxon system used here in the US but no US government promotion campaign has been able to speed up its adaptation. People don't like to change things like that unless there's a necessity. Why are we still honoring Roman gods and emperors in the names of the months? Surely, that doesn't amke sense? Guess what, the French Revolution tried to change them, it didn't work. The names of the days actuially refer to Germanic gods: you'd think the Church would've really pushed to change that! They probably tried ... Change is good but imposing it by intellectual mandate for intellectualist reasons is never going to be easy.

#45 ::: Francis Deblauwe ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2003, 03:59 PM:

Concerning the NRG "Sumerian dictionary": this person obviously is not a trained Sumerologist. I studied Akkadian and Sumerian quite a few years ago. From what I still remember I can make a few comments. The listing "Sarrat irkalli" is actually Akkadian (a Semitic language spoken by Babylonians and Assyrians): s[h]arratum = "queen" + irkallum = "underworld." Granted that irkallum is derived from a Sumerian word. "S[h]umma" is also Akkadian, not Sumerian, etc. This person mixes the two indiscriminately. Scribes who wrote Akkadian did use a lot of Sumerian loanwords and Sumerian logograms but they are still 2 different languages. Sumerian is an agglutinative language like for instance Finnish, Hungarian.

#46 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2003, 04:00 PM:

Been arguing about this stuff since time immemorial...

When you're going to school in an educational system that commonly has its big holidays at Christmas and Easter, I have trouble imagining that the use or non-use of BC/AD is going to have much impact either way. I'm more inclined to think that any kid who can puzzle out Anno Domini deserves to be congratulated, no matter what background he comes from.

I favor teaching kids BCE/CE because it either is or is going to be the formally correct version. Knowing it may or may not make a difference at some point in their future lives; but if it does, I want them to know it without confusion.

#47 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2003, 12:10 AM:


The demarcation for "present", in BP is 1950, so an exact number can be given.

But I grant that it's confusing to those who have not had that little bit of trivia explained.

Terry K.

#48 ::: Stephan Brun ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2003, 04:08 AM:

Rachael, I was under the impression that the months are named after Roman gods and people, and religio romana is largely historical today. Because of its impotence, I'm not terribly bothered by it. (Besides, old religions, their associated mythology and their presence in modern culture rather fascinates me.) I think you will find that the names of the days of the week are similarly named after germanic (possibly saxon or norse) gods.

BC/BCE, on the other hand, I think is a big win. Why impose on people the association with what used to be a religion with an extreme missionary zeal (and arguably still is), when one doesn't have to?

#49 ::: Eriika ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 08:14 AM:

Greetings and salutations to you all.

This is the first time I4ve visited your charming site and now I have read your wondering about sumerian chocolate with amusement.
Via internet it is so easy to distribute complete nonsense and pseudoinformation. Especially when a webpage contains someting about Cthulhu, one should really consider believing other things too. Just that something is there doesn4t mean that its correct. And most of the people know this very well, but it seems that the common sense hasn4t prevailed this time.

The www.ping.de -dictionary is COMPLETE BULLSHIT. Perhaps it4s derived from Necronomicon. You sad, sad fools.

As it happens I am studying sumerian language in the University of Helsinki. If you are interested in sumerian culture or language, please go to the following sites, which we students too are using.

http://www.sumerian.org
This is a online dictionary compiled by John A. Halloran. The word lists aren4t complete and there are some mistakes too, but it is the best available.

http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/
The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
If you4re interested of, for example, the flood story or any other sumerian mythological text, read this corpus, it is maintained by the Oriental Institute of the Oxford University. There you can read up to date translations.

People, don4t believe crap. Read the real stuff!

#50 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 11:16 AM:

Y'know, Eriika, I kinda thought the whole premise of this thread was "this dictionary is completely suspect because it uses terms the language couldn't have." And then we go off and play with it. Calling us "sad, sad fools" (without being part of the community so we can tell when you're joking) seems a bit harsh; telling us not to believe what we clearly don't believe is similar.

Now, it'd be lovely to have you stick around and contribute to the discussion if you'd like to play nice with us. Those are interesting looking links you've posted, and even relevant. I'll even forgive a bit of your crassness because you're a grad student, a form of culturally-sanctioned insanity that involves monomania. But we don't entirely work by Received Wisdom here -- and I, for one, am more likely to dismiss what I perceive as arrogance. And your comment dips into that, deeply in points.

I'm not a host here, but I care a lot about this community.

Sincerely,
Tom Whitmore

#51 ::: Jonathan Edelstein ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 08:10 PM:

The demarcation for "present", in BP is 1950.

Are we living After the Present, then? Gives a whole new meaning to the term "postmodern..."

As for the dictionary, maybe it could be the basis of a Modern Sumerian revival, much as occurred with Hebrew. Modern Sumerian, the unifying tongue of a glorious reborn Iraq, would need a word for "chocolate," not to mention "television," "internet" and "information minister."

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