Open and Shut

“The Fifth Risk” and “Winners Take All” offer compelling perspectives on the contentious debate between private interest and public good, and raise provocative questions about an activist agenda for the design professions.

U.S. Capitol during the shutdown of October 2013.
U.S. Capitol during the shutdown of October 2013. [Wikimedia Commons]

In October 2013, much of the government of the United States was shut down for sixteen days as Congress fought over funding for the Affordable Care Act. On the very first day of that shutdown, the American Institute of Architects published a statement declaring that its members were “extremely disillusioned with the current state of affairs in the nation’s capital.” The AIA was especially concerned about firms working on federal construction projects; yet the national organization, whose policy priorities include healthy communities and sustainable environments, made a more expansive point: “We urge both political parties to set aside political divisions and put the ‘common good’ of the American public first. That phrase is an anachronism in today’s political vernacular, but lawmakers ought to commit it to memory in coming weeks.”

The shutdown is making us realize how much we depend upon the work public employees do when their offices are open.

That the leading organization of U.S. architects would be alarmed by the prospect of the federal government shutting down for business is hardly surprising; a very great deal of that business affects the health and sustainability of our built and natural environments — the common good of the American public. The current shutdown, which has lasted (as I write) for seventeen days and counting, is making that more painfully apparent than ever. Most immediately the shutdown hurts furloughed federal employees who can’t cover the mortgage, pay the rent, buy groceries. But it is also making many more of us realize how much we depend upon the work public employees do when their offices are open and the government is functioning. Across the country, rural communities are stressed because low-interest mortgage loans aren’t being processed by the Department of Agriculture. In cities, homebuyers are worried about their Federal Housing Authority loans, and tenants are anxious about repairs in buildings managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. National parks are reportedly strewn with trash, and some environmentalists warn about long-term damage to these fragile landscapes. A researcher in the Chicago office of the Environmental Protection Agency is nervous about delays on projects to improve the health of the Great Lakes; the former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service emphasizes that a shutdown has “cascading effects” on the field work of the organization. And of course these are just a few of the endless impacts — #shutdown stories — being documented by news outlets and on social media. 1

The Occaquan National Wildlife Refuge, in northern Virginia, is one of more than 500 protected landscapes managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Occaquan National Wildlife Refuge in northern Virginia, now closed due to the shutdown, is one of more than 500 protected landscapes managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [Judy Gallagher]

The AIA has not yet made any statement about the current crisis, but clearly the issues are as critical as they were half a dozen years ago. And in fact more so; the potential damage of this latest shutdown is far greater because it is being inflicted by an administration that from the outset has sought to undermine the fundamental workings of the nation it was elected to lead (and to serve). Two excellent recent books do much to illuminate the depths of our dilemma. Together The Fifth Risk and Winners Take All offer complementary perspectives on our immediate crises and structural troubles, and on the ongoing contentious debate about the balance between private interests and common good. As such they suggest political frameworks that might inform the hard restoration (of civil discourse, collective trust, public institutions, American democracy) that will need to follow the end of Trump. They also suggest provocative possibilities about how the design disciplines might structure an activist agenda and participate in that restoration.

The Fifth Risk delves into the unsung and unglamorous precincts of the federal civil service.

In The Fifth Risk, the journalist Michael Lewis delves into the usually unsung and unglamorous precincts of the federal civil service. Most directly the book is an unsettling account of the Trump administration’s catastrophic mismanagement and malign neglect of the agencies that comprise the executive branch, with a particular focus on the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. The problems began right away, with a botched and chaotic transition. Lewis describes the scene at various agencies on the morning of November 9, 2016, as senior managers awaited the “small army” of new staffers they’ve come to expect from an incoming administration. As required by law, the departments had prepared voluminous briefing books — five-inch-thick three-ring binders containing tens of thousands of pages that Lewis calls “the best course ever on the inner workings of the most powerful institution on earth.” But that day and for weeks afterward, nobody showed up at the imposing departmental headquarters along the National Mall. The Trump people who finally arrived were inexperienced and unqualified. An oil industry apparatchik with ties to Koch Industries and ExxonMobil was the transition official for the DOE. A PepsiCo lobbyist turned up for the USDA briefings, and assorted agency positions were filled by campaign loyalists including “a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT+T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company.”

The fundamental mandate of the executive branch agencies is nothing less than the project management of the United States of America.

Such hires were symptomatic of the Trump team’s ignorance of and downright hostility to the fundamental mandate of the executive branch. Which, as Lewis describes it, is nothing less than the project management of the United States of America. The book can be read as a horrifyingly detailed report on the evisceration of the national government by the worst president in U.S. history. But it’s also a paean to a public bureaucracy that’s as underpaid and under-appreciated as it is dedicated and mission-driven — a vast workforce responsible for managing an immense “portfolio of risks” and for keeping hundreds of millions of Americans safe from harm; harm that can range from toxic romaine lettuce to poisonous tap water, from childhood malnutrition to malfunctioning air traffic control to decades-old deteriorating bridges. But even more perilous are the risks we don’t even anticipate. 2

At the Hanford Site in eastern Washington, resin contained in these tanks is being used to decontaminate groundwater polluted by decades of plutonium production, in a massive cleanup project managed by the U.S. Department of Energy
At the Hanford Site in eastern Washington, resin contained in these tanks is being used to decontaminate groundwater polluted by decades of plutonium production, in a massive cleanup project managed by the U.S. Department of Energy. [DOE]

The risk portfolio — the public responsibility — of the federal government is formidable. The Department of Energy, with a budget of $30 billion and a staff of 110,000, is charged with protecting the country’s nuclear arsenal and cleaning up what Lewis calls the “unholy world-historic mess” left behind by decades of manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium. The department trains atomic inspectors; guards electrical grids across the country from physical attacks and cyber-intrusions; sponsors low-interest loans to catalyze investment in alternative energy (“every Tesla you see on the road,” Lewis reports, “came from a facility financed by the DOE”); and runs a $6-billion science program across seventeen national laboratories. Obama’s Energy Secretary, the nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, advised on the lengthy diplomatic negotiations that produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal. (Lewis describes the role of the current secretary, Rick Perry, as “ceremonial and bizarre”; according to a DOE official, Perry has “never been briefed on a program — not a single one.”)

The Department of Agriculture, with a budget of $141 billion and staff of 105,000, manages a couple hundred million acres of forests and grasslands and maintains an aircraft fleet for fighting wildfires. The USDA finances crop insurance; inspects all the meat that’s eaten in the United States; runs all the food, nutrition, shelter, and energy programs in rural America; and supports an extensive program of scientific research, often in coordination with land-grant universities. (The department was created in the midst of the Civil War “as a vast science lab,” Lewis writes, because the Lincoln administration “had decided it was time to make U.S. agriculture more efficient.”)

And that’s just for starters; there’s so much else that the book reproduces the department’s multi-box organizational chart. Likewise the Department of Commerce oversees a network of agencies ranging from the U.S. Census Bureau to the Patent and Trademark Office to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Its single largest program is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which in turn oversees the National Weather Service. And lest this sound quotidian, Lewis reminds us that weather predictions can have profound consequences. Not only does the mega-billion-dollar agriculture industry depend upon data-rich forecasting; in 1980, the mission to rescue the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran failed because of an unforeseen sandstorm.

Greenhouses at North Dakota State University are part of an extensive network of such facilities run by the USDA.
Greenhouses at North Dakota State University are part of an extensive network of research facilities run by the USDA. [USDA, Lance Cheung]

The USDA maintains an apiary on the roof of its headquarters in D.C. in order to study bee colony collapse. Here, scientific technicians harvest honey, September 2014.
The USDA maintains an apiary on the roof of its D.C. headquarters in order to study bee colony collapse. Here, scientific technicians harvest honey. [USDA, Lance Cheung]

A field command vehicle of the National Severe Storms Laboratory tracks a storm in Wyoming.
A field command vehicle of the National Severe Storms Laboratory tracks a storm in Wyoming. [NOAA, Dr. Mike Coniglio]

Much of The Fifth Risk is devoted to vivid portraits of federal bureaucrats who (until recently, alas) made these agencies so effective. There’s John MacWilliams, who amassed a fortune as founder of an energy-sector investment firm before being recruited by Ernest Moniz to serve as DOE’s first “chief risk officer” — essentially, to evaluate all that could backfire when transporting four-megaton hydrogen bombs around the country, or when protecting the nation’s (vulnerable) power plants, or when decontaminating the Hanford nuclear site, where decades of plutonium-making has left a “massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge” coursing through 500 square miles of eastern Washington State. There’s Kevin Concannon, who was coaxed out of retirement by Tom Vilsack, Obama’s Agriculture Secretary, to head one of the boxes of the department’s org chart — “food, nutrition, and consumer services” — and who over eight years ran more than a dozen programs that worked to ensure that mothers and children in the rural U.S. were decently fed and properly nourished. As a college student Concannon was inspired by Michael Harrington’s The Other America and by the call to public service in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address; he still wonders why anyone would object to using public funds to keep poor people from going hungry. And there’s the astronaut-scientist Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, who went on to become the chief scientist and then the administrator of NOAA and whose last big departmental project was the successful relaunch of the polar satellite. As she left she was working on an ambitious new project for a “Weather-Ready Nation.”

Trump has been able to install flunkies and backscratchers throughout the executive branch partly because we’ve never paid much attention to all the functions government performs.

These (and many other) biographical sketches form the emotional center of the narrative. But Lewis wants us not simply to admire particular public servants. He wants us to acknowledge our collective complicity in the current debacle. If the Trump administration has been able to install flunkies and backscratchers in positions at every level of the executive branch, it’s because for years now we’ve undervalued the government bureaucrat to the point where the very term has become a pejorative, conjuring the image of a clock-watching functionary or back-office data pusher, and also because we’ve never paid enough attention to all the functions the government performs. “I’m routinely appalled by how profoundly ignorant even highly educated people are when it comes to the structure and function of our government,” says Kathy Sullivan. It’s unsurprising to learn that a high percentage of those who excel in public service are first-generation Americans who come from countries with dysfunctional or failed governments. As Lewis writes, “People who had lived without government were more likely to find meaning in it. On the other hand, people who had never experienced a collapsed state were slow to appreciate a state that had not yet collapsed.”

The Spurs Community Garden at the San Antonio Food Bank is sponsored by the USDA and provides organic produce to its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest food aid program in the country.
The Spurs Community Garden at the San Antonio Food Bank is sponsored by the USDA and provides organic produce to its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest food aid program in the country. [USDA]

Receivers at the Svalbard Ground Station send satellite data to the National Weather Service twice during every 90 minute orbit.
Receivers at the Svalbard Ground Station in Norway send satellite data to the National Weather Service twice during every 90-minute orbit. [NASA/KSAT]

Two years after the inauguration, the immediate danger to our executive branch is not (yet) collapse but rather the insidious undercutting of its public service mission. In this light the real threat isn’t the cabana boy who’s landed a desk job at the USDA; it’s the well-connected one-percenters who are pursuing major political appointments in order to privatize valuable public goods. In Lewis’s book there’s no better, or worse, example of this inside grift than Trump’s nomination of Barry Myers to serve as head of NOAA. Myers is the CEO of AccuWeather, which since the 1960s has made billions in for-profit weather forecasting by repackaging and marketing the atmospheric data collected by the U.S. government. As a businessman Myers has long campaigned to suppress public access to taxpayer-funded weather reports; at one point he lobbied hard for a law that would have prevented the National Weather Service from delivering, in Lewis’s words, “any weather-related knowledge to any American who might otherwise wind up a paying customer of AccuWeather.” 3

Again and again The Fifth Risk emphasizes that in a democracy the government performs countless never-ending public-interest functions that no private individual or for-profit corporation would ever be able to perform. There just isn’t much financial upside to underwriting the no-end-in-sight projects of decontaminating radioactive sites; or offering free lunches to grade-schoolers (and caring enough to make them nutritious); or collecting 20 terabytes of planetary-scale weather data every single day (“twice as much data as is contained in the entire book collection of the Library of Congress”); or sponsoring decades of scientific research in places like the National Severe Storms Laboratory in order to develop the billion-dollar satellites now orbiting the earth.

The immediate danger to our executive branch is not (yet) collapse but rather the insidious and deliberate undercutting of its public service mission.

The Fifth Risk is a powerful work of immersive reportage. The risk of the title is not a specific threat; it’s a mentality, a collective loss of national attention and failure of civic imagination; “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” Lewis prescribes no easy remedies but he does offer unexpected heroes. The federal bureaucrats of The Fifth Risk are worried about the future of countless publicly funded projects. Perhaps their deepest worry is that we don’t fully grasp the degree to which we’ve come to depend upon an immense infrastructure of public services created over the course of more than two centuries; and that our ignorance, or inattention, has been enabling not only Donald Trump and his scented candlemakers but also the well-resourced free-marketeers who’ve been working for decades to cut taxes, roll back regulations, and reduce the role of government — in short, to privatize and financialize the project of the United States of America. “There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through the American government,” Lewis writes. “It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.”

Winners Take All can be read as a cautionary catalogue of powerful private-sector forces that are crippling democratic institutions.

The Fifth Risk can be read as a kind of continuing-education civics primer for the post-Trump restoration, a remedial course in the workings of representative democracy and a bracing call for the repair and reinvigoration of public institutions. Winners Take All, by the journalist Anand Giridharadas, can be read as the reverse: as a cautionary catalogue of powerful private-sector forces that are crippling those very institutions. The titular winners are a plutocratic cohort that for decades has sought assiduously to extend its purview from the business of amassing money to the business of solving the problems of the world. The author pursues his high-profile subject with the tenacious intensity of an ethnographer. He tracks a fashionable global circuit of world-changing that extends from conferences and think tanks to academia and media, from the invitation-only confabs of Davos and Aspen and TED to the boardrooms of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, from the seminars of Harvard Business School to the family foundations of Silicon Valley. He details a roster of major players including tech billionaires, venture capitalists, foundations heads, Wall Street financiers, even a couple of former U.S. presidents. He records the ubiquitous jargon — trendy buzzwords like impact investing, conscious capitalism, triple bottom line, sharing economy, thought leadership; anodyne mantras like “win-win,” “problems as opportunities,” and “doing well by doing good.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook; Eric Schmidt, Google; and Satya Nadella, Microsoft, at the session on "The Future of the Digital Economy" at the World Economic Forum at Davos, January 2015.
Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, and Satya Nadella — leaders of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — participate in the “Future of the Digital Economy” session at the World Economic Forum, Davos, January 2015. [World Economic Forum, Valeriano DiDomenico]

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy at TED Global 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy speaks at TED Global 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. [TED, James Duncan Davidson]

Giridharadas, who’s been an Aspen fellow and given TED Talks, acknowledges he’s not only a reporter but a (sometime) participant in this heady world. But he seems more apostate than insider, and his book is a thorough indictment of philanthrocapitalism, or, as the spiky subtitle puts it, “the elite charade of changing the world.” Giridharadas argues that the problem — the charade — is systemic; that the overall impact of philanthrocapitalism is to distort the very idea of social change. Not only are the self-appointed change agents unwilling to push for meaningful action that might threaten the systems that have allowed them to accumulate vast wealth; often as not they’ve caused or contributed to the very problems they are claiming to solve. The modus operandi is not structural reform but personal generosity. The arena is not electoral politics but the free market. The ethos is patronage and volunteerism.

The overall impact of philanthrocapitalism is to distort the very idea of social change.

Thus the overlords of Silicon Valley make highly publicized charitable donations to municipal schools and hospitals even as they lobby fiercely to reduce the corporate taxes that would have supported those schools and hospitals in the first place. 4 Elsewhere in philanthrocapitalism, the do-gooder elite focus on what the author calls “actionable tweaks.” On the mainstage at TED, a star feminist academic reduces entrenched misogyny to a matter of body language: women can cope with their feelings of powerlessness, she argues, by striking Wonder Woman “power poses.” A group of young tech entrepreneurs strives to alleviate the stresses of the gig economy by creating a phone app called Even: for a subscription fee, the app helps anxious shift workers “smooth” the uncertain income from their irregular paychecks. In this way a profound social problem is reconceptualized as a win-win business opportunity. (Earlier this year Even raised $40 million from a Menlo Park venture capitalist.) As Giridharadas writes:

Even would endeavor, with characteristic Silicon Valley ambition, to counteract the effects of a generation’s worth of changes in the lives of working-class Americans, rooted in policy choices and shifts in technology and the world situation — including outsourcing, stagnant wages, erratic hours, defanged unions, deindustrialization, ballooning debt, nonexistent sick leave, dismal schools, predatory lending, and dynamic scheduling — while doing nothing about those underlying problems.

The political scientist Jacob Hacker describes Even as a “personal solution to a public problem.” Giridharadas argues convincingly that no matter the positive results, these sort of niche projects and half-measures constitute a disturbing retreat from the realm of public action and the ideals of participatory democracy. “What is at stake,” he argues, “is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by a wealthy elite claiming to know our best interests.”

The do-gooder elite focus not on structural reform but personal patronage.

In both books Donald Trump is a symptom not a cause. In Winners Take All he is “chief salesman for the theory, rife among plutocratic change agents, that what is best for powerful him is best for the powerless, too.” In The Fifth Risk he is the “ultimate expression” of Americans’ willful ignorance of the collective responsibilities of national governance. Together these narratives portray his presidency as the endgame of an interconnected and corrosive historical trajectory: the more we impoverish the public sphere of common interest and mutual benefit, the more we rely upon the unpredictable patronage of an unelected elite. Neither author indulges in simplistic solutionism, but each offers a relentlessly detailed and politically expansive argument that adds force to what Barack Obama called, in a major speech last fall, “a great awakening of citizenship all across the country.” Each contributes to the increasing awareness that the current crisis demands not just new leaders but more fundamental realignments. As Giridharadas writes:

We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today — in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.

In neither Winners Take All nor The Fifth Risk do professional designers make much of an appearance. Yet architects and landscape architects have long sought to play a part in driving those “engines of progress” of modern social democracy, and together these books raise pointed questions about how exactly that goal can be pursued most effectively, and in what spheres of action. Lately much activist ambition in design is centered on furthering social justice and ecological resilience, on countering the inequities that are hollowing out our cities and on mitigating the effects of climate change. But in a field dominated by client-dependent private practices, the opportunities for steady participation in public-interest endeavors have been limited.

A few firms have made social design their central mission; many more deploy the “Robin Hood” model in which lucrative commissions support pro bono efforts. But the overall fragility of the enterprise is captured in the headline of a Next City feature on a small Chicago practice: “How to Become a Social Impact Designer Without Going (Permanently) Broke.” 5 All of which is to say that social-sector projects are more akin to the personal altruism and privatized initiatives — the “actionable tweaks” — of Winners Take All than to the sustained and grounded public service of The Fifth Risk. Projects are for the most part small-scale and short-term, reliant upon philanthropic largesse and volunteer sweat equity. They are more likely to be exhibited or published than constructed, and in that sense belong more to the realm of ideas than action.

This is wholly understandable; in design as in other professions, civil service has rarely been the coveted or lucrative career path. Yet there is a small but real tradition of architects being elected or appointed to positions of high public responsibility. Architects have served as mayors and as directors of municipal urban development agencies; one has even been U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 6 Can we imagine that this tradition might be significantly amplified? Or more precisely, that architects might contribute to a realignment of politics, a reinvigoration of public service, a renewed commitment to the project management of the nation?

Can we imagine that architects might contribute to a reinvigoration of public service and a renewed commitment to the project management of the nation?

No doubt this would require a substantial shift in perception as well as desire, an expansion of the professional pantheon to include not only formal creators but also creative administrators. I realize this might sound impossibly speculative. But is it really so hard to imagine that practitioners of the most public of all the arts would enlarge their purview to encompass public service? Would extend their conceptual energies from making things to managing systems of things? In The Fifth Risk, Lewis describes the work of a D.C.-based nonprofit called the Partnership for Public Service, founded in the 1990s “to turn the government into a place talented young people wanted to work,” as he puts it. In the early aughts, the PPS created an annual awards program to honor high-achieving public servants. Recent winners include a thirtysomething staffer at HUD who created HUDStat, a dashboard that tracks the effectiveness of public housing projects; a young analyst at the Federal Transit Administration who ran a $3.6-billion grant program focused on “transportation resilience” in the wake of hurricane Sandy; and a DOE manager who directed multiple clean-energy initiatives including the Energy Star program and the Better Buildings Challenge. The post-Trump restoration of the public sphere might well turn out to be what the philanthrocapitalists would call a “problem as opportunity.”

Editors' Note
  1. See Sarah Gibbens, “National park face years of damage from government shutdown,” National Geographic, January 4, 2019. Alan Blinder, “Toll on Science and Research Mounts as Government Shutdown Continues,” New York Times, January 5, 2019. Suzy Khimm and Laura Strickler, “How the government shutdown is hurting some of America’s poorest families,” NBC News, January 4, 2019. Harmeet Kaur and Christina Kline, “How the government shutdown is affecting Americans,” CNN, January 6, 2019.
  2. Lewis elaborates on these risks: “Some of the risks were easy to imagine: a financial crisis, a hurricane, a terrorist attack. Most weren’t: the risk, say, that some prescription drug proves to be both so addictive and so accessible that each year it kills more Americans than were killed in action by the peak of the Vietnam War. Many of the risks that fell into the government’s lap felt so remote as to be unreal: that a cyberattack left half the country without electricity, or that some airborne virus wiped out millions, or that economic inequality reached the point where it triggered a violent revolution. Maybe the least visible risks were of things not happening that, with better government, might have happened. A cure for cancer, for instance.” Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018), 25.
  3. Trump nominated Barry Myers in October 2017; the confirmation has been delayed twice due to Democrats’ concerns about conflicts of interest. See Lisa Friedman, “Trump’s NOAA Nominee Won’t Get Senate Vote This Year,” New York Times, December 13, 2018.
  4. In 2015 Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan donated $75 million to San Francisco General Hospital to support a trauma center; the hospital is now called the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. “Priscilla and I believe that everyone deserves access to high quality health care,” Zuckerberg was quoted as saying at the time of the donation. A recent news story raises doubts about the extent of the hospital’s public accessibility. See Sarah Kiff, “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills,” Vox,  January 7, 2019.
  5. See Gilad Meron and Mia Scharphie, “How to Become a Social Impact Designer Without Going (Permanently) Broke,” Next City, January 16, 2017. See also the case studies on the website Proactive Practices.
  6. Prominent examples of architects (or those trained in the field) in public service include Harvey Gantt, who served as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1980s; Maurice Cox, who was mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, in the early 2000s and is now the planning and development director for the city of Detroit; and Shaun Donovan, Barack Obama’s first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and later his director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Nancy Levinson, “Open and Shut,” Places Journal, January 2019. Accessed 20 Mar 2023.

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