The Final Days

The Final Days


Thursday, 05 July 2007

Source: New York Times Magazine

Steven from Arizona — a caller on “Coast to Coast AM” late one night in February — had slipped into a future reality and caught a glimpse of the devastation that was coming when the supervolcano under Yellowstone erupted. James in Omaha, on the other hand, was worried about the likelihood of a magnetic pole shift, while Rod from Edmonton had recently spoken to a member of the Canadian Parliament about the global-warming crisis and couldn’t believe what he had heard.
“We’re coming to an end time beyond anything that anybody has ever imagined,” Rod said with a trembling urgency. “The scientists right now, they’re not even studying the real causes. The Kyoto treaty and CO2 have nothing to do with anything.”

“Coast to Coast AM” is an overnight radio show devoted to what its weekday host, George Noory, calls “the unusual mysteries of the world and the universe.” Broadcast out of Sherman Oaks, Calif., and carried nationwide on more than 500 stations as well as the XM Radio satellite network, “Coast to Coast AM” is by far the highest-rated radio program in the country once the lights go out. The guest in the wee hours that February morning was Lawrence E. Joseph, the author of “Apocalypse 2012” — billed as “a scientific investigation into civilization’s end” — and he came on the air to tell the story of how the ancient Maya looked into the stars and predicted catastrophic changes to the earth, all pegged to the end date of an historical cycle on one of their calendars, Dec. 21, 2012.

“My motto tonight,” Noory intoned at the beginning of the program, “is be prepared, not scared.” What followed was a graphic recitation of disaster scenarios for 2012, including hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by solar storms, cracks forming in the earth’s magnetic field and mass extinctions brought on by nuclear winter. The only hopeful note of the night was struck when an unnamed caller asked Joseph what he thought about recent Virgin Mary apparitions in Bosnia.

“I love it,” the author answered. “That’s positive. You don’t need to be a devout Christian to admire the Virgin Mary. She’s a blessing to us all.”

When I reached Noory by phone at his program’s studio in California, he told me, “I’m a staunch believer that we are in an earth cycle.” As 2012 approaches, “Coast to Coast” has been devoting more and more programming to prophecies of doom and the signs and wonders that are thought to be harbingers of the coming end time: U.F.O. sightings, crop-circle formations, disappearing honeybees and flocks of migratory birds that fall from the sky. “There’s no question the planet is changing,” Noory said. “And the fact that the Mayans had an end date and their history talks of change, I find that fascinating.”

But it isn’t just on the lower frequencies, late at night, where people are waiting on the Mayan apocalypse. Daniel Pinchbeck, author of the alternative-culture best seller “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl” — and a guest on “Coast to Coast AM” — has introduced a young and savvy audience to the school of millenarian thinking that has gathered around Mayan calendrics. To do so, he has employed viral marketing and a tireless schedule of public appearances at bookstores, art spaces, yoga studios and electronic-music festivals. When Pinchbeck appeared on “The Colbert Report” last December to promote his book, the host confronted him in front of a life-size manger scene: “You have been called a new Timothy Leary. Why do we need another one of those?”

Over breakfast at Cafe Gitane in Manhattan, Pinchbeck told me recently that “there’s a growing realization that materialism and the rational, empirical worldview that comes with it has reached its expiration date.” A youthful 41, with long, drooping hair and heavy-framed designer eyewear, Pinchbeck exudes a languid fervency that is equal parts Jesuit and Jim Morrison. His BlackBerry sat face up on the table, the screen dark, beside his bowl of organic fruit, yogurt and granola. “Apocalypse literally means uncovering or revealing,” Pinchbeck went on, “and I think the process is already under way. We’re on the verge of transitioning to a dispensation of consciousness that’s more intuitive, mystical and shamanic.”

Far from its origins, divorced from its context and enlisted in a prophetic project that it may never have been designed to fulfill, the Mayan calendar is at the center of an escalating cultural phenomenon — with New Age roots — that unites numinous dreams of societal transformation with the darker tropes of biblical cataclysm. To some, 2012 will bring the end of time; to others, it carries the promise of a new beginning; to still others, 2012 provides an explanation for troubling new realities — environmental change, for example — that seem beyond the control of our technology and impervious to reason. Just in time for the final five-year countdown, the Mayan apocalypse has come of age.

Light and darkness — heavenly forces and a corrupted earth — are the twin engines of apocalyptic movements. For Christians awaiting rapture or Shiites counting the days until the Twelfth Imam appears, the trials and injustices of the known world are a prelude for the paradise that we can imagine but can’t yet achieve. Judging by the sheer number of predicted end dates that have come and gone without the trumpets blowing and angels rushing in, we are a people impatient to see our world redeemed through catastrophe — and we are always wrong. Gnostics predicted the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom as early as the first century; Christians in Europe attacked pagan territories in the north to prepare for the end of the world at the first millennium; the Shakers believed the world would end in 1792; there was a “Great Disappointment” among followers of the Baptist preacher William Miller when Jesus did not return to upstate New York on Oct. 22, 1844. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been especially prodigious with prophetic end dates: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. Any religious movement with an end-time prophecy is certain to attract followers, no matter how maniacal or fringy (witness the Branch Davidians). For those who want to go online and get the latest tally of bad news, there is a nuclear Doomsday Clock and the Rapture Index. If you remember living through Y2K, that was another millenarian moment — except our computer systems were redeemed by the same code writers who corrupted them in the first place.

Who dreams of the apocalypse? Why do they dream of it? Polls indicate that up to 50 percent of Americans believe that the Book of Revelation is a true, prophetic document, meaning they fully expect the predictions of “Rapture,” “Tribulation” and “Armageddon” to be fulfilled. There is a paradox built into end-time theologies in that imminent catastrophe often brings comfort; according to Paul S. Boyer, an authority on prophecy belief in American culture and an emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the apocalypse is an appealing idea because it promises salvation to a select group — all of whom share secret knowledge — and a world redeemed and delivered from evil. “The Utopian dream is a big part of the Western tradition,” Boyer told me, “both the religious and secular forms. But the wicked have to be destroyed and evil has to be overcome for the era of righteousness to dawn.” This is as true in the New Age as much as in any other one. Rumors of global crisis, the distrust of institutional authority, the ready availability of esoteric lore, the existence of individuals drawn to abstruse numerical schemes, the urge to assuage anxieties with dreams of social transformation — wherever these elements exist, apocalyptic thinking is likely to flourish.

The year 2012 first entered the public consciousness two decades ago this August with the Harmonic Convergence organized by José Arguelles, the author of a number of esoteric books about the Mayan cosmos and his experiences with telepathically received prophecies. With a penchant for promotion going back to the first Whole Earth Festival in 1970, which he organized, Arguelles promoted the convergence as an earth-changing event requiring 144,000 participants — the number echoed Mayan mathematics and the Book of Revelation — to free the planet from the dissonant influence of Western science and synchronize with the “wave harmonic of history” set to culminate in 2012. Mayan civilization, to Arguelles, was not entirely Mayan: It was originally a “terrestrial project” managed by a race of “galactic masters” from “star bases.” He saw the convergence as a stage, ordained by prophecy, in a march to the end foreseen by the ancient calendar makers: “Somewhere in that far and distant time, when armies clashed with metal and chemicals released the fire of the Sun, the wonder of Maya would burst again, releasing the mystery and showing the way that marks return among the patterns of the stars.”

Large crowds, some perhaps oblivious to the apocalyptic undertones of the event, did end up gathering at “focus locations” around the world — Stonehenge, Mount Shasta and Bolinas in California, even Central Park — and extensive media coverage of the meditating and dancing masses lent Arguelles and his project an eccentric authority. The New Age had discovered its own eschatology — with a mysterious, mythical people the controlling intelligence — and 2012 joined the lexicon of “energies,” transcendental meditation and crystals. By 1991 Arguelles was popularizing his own calendric system, which he branded Dreamspell, as a corrective to our mechanized time (dismissed, in mathematical shorthand, as “12:60,” the ratio of solar months to minutes in an hour). Inspired by the tzolk’in, the 260-day prophetic calendar utilized by the ancient Maya and common throughout Mesoamerica, Dreamspell functions as a daily oracle, replacing linear time with a “loom of resonances” that users navigate with a “galactic signature” based on the day of their birth. More than just an astrological sign, this signature is a tool for meditation and, as the latest edition of Arguelles’s calendar promises, “your password in fourth-dimensional time.”

Arguelles, under the aegis of his fief, the Foundation for the Law of Time, has lobbied tirelessly for the universal adoption of his calendar — now called the 13-Moon 28-day Calendar — by posting communiqués on the Web and arranging audiences with Mayan elders and members of the Vatican. Lately he has been designing large-scale telepathic experiments in conjunction with a Russian laboratory in Novosibirsk and other groups affiliated with his Planet Art Network.

“The post-2012 world will be a world of universal telepathy,” Arguelles wrote me recently from New Zealand, where he has gone to prepare for the transition. Since 1993, when he claims to have received a new prophecy in Hawaii, he has been calling himself Valum Votan, Closer of the Cycle. “We’ll be literally living in a new time,” Arguelles said, “by a 13-month, 28-day synchronometer that will facilitate our telepathy by keeping us in harmony with everything all the time. There will be a lot fewer of us, with simple lifestyles, solar technology, garden culture and lots of telepathic communication.” As for the many who “have not evolved spiritually enough to know that there are other dimensions of reality,” Arguelles predicts they will be taken away in “silver ships.”

With Arguelles drifting into even more occult realms — his last book, “Time and the Technosphere,” spun elaborate new theories around 9/11 — he has been supplanted in the New Age conversation by the next generation of Mayan-calendar mystics with their own theories about the coming transition. This new generation does not typically think that space aliens guided the Maya and prides itself on its reverence for Mayan culture and tradition. Carl Johan Calleman, author of “The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness,” is a former cancer researcher from Sweden whose calculations have led him to a controversial end date of his own devising: Oct. 28, 2011. As Arguelles’s closest spiritual heir in the Mayan-calendar movement, Calleman has been active in promoting a regular mass-meditation event called the Breakthrough Celebration and other more focused projects including the Jerusalem Hug, which gathered 5,000 people around the walls of the Old City on May 21 to harness constructive energies and create a “cascade of peace.”

While his interest in 2012 is not exclusively focused on the Mayan calendar, Chet Snow — a past-lives regression therapist and author from Sedona, Ariz. — tracks the impending consciousness shift on his Mass Dreams Newsletter, organizes annual crop-circle and sacred-site tours and gathers the disparate camps of the 2012 movement together for conferences devoted to ancient mysteries and the paranormal.

When I asked Snow why he thought people were turning to alternative ideas and explanations like the ones espoused at his conferences, he told me the answer was a simple one. “The pillars of our expectations about the future in the West have started to crumble,” he said. “Religion, politics and economics — none of it is working any more. So when you hear about the ancient Maya and this changeover in 2012 involving solar cycles and astronomical events, you say, ‘Huh, maybe I need to connect with that.’ ”

If the Mayan calendar seems like an unlikely timing device for our salvation — whether it arrives through global catastrophe or telepathic rainbow around the earth — its animating role in the 2012 phenomenon is entirely consistent with popular notions of the “mysterious” Maya that have persisted for over a century. The Maya were just one of the peoples to thrive in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century, but the civilization’s florescence — spanning the period called the Maya Classic, between 300 and 900 A.D. — was especially bright and spectacular. After growing into a loose confederation of rival city-states that spread across the Yucatan peninsula and extended as far as Chiapas in the west and Honduras in the east, the Mayan civilization fell into a rolling decline that ended with the almost complete abandonment of their cities. The so-called Mayan collapse is a continued source of speculation and a major reason why the Maya have captured the imagination of 19th-century travelers, 20th-century archaeologists and generations of popular fantasists who have connected the Maya to everything from intergalactic colonies to the lost island of Atlantis to Teutonic gods from fire-breathing spaceships. The Mayan sites attract small armies of New Age pilgrims every year, hoping to plug into a stone socket of timeless indigenous wisdom; tens of thousands gather for the spring equinox at Chichén Itzá alone to watch the shadow of a snake slither down the steps of the Temple of Kukulcin.

In the introduction to his book “Maya Cosmogenesis 2012: The True Meaning of the Maya Calendar End Date,” John Major Jenkins describes his first visit to Tikal, the vast ruin in the Guatemalan rain forest that thrived as an urban center at the pinnacle of Mayan civilization. Jenkins, perhaps the most lucid figure in the subculture of 2012 prophets, writes of the “bone-jarring 16-hour bus ride on muddy and dangerous roads” that carried him to a “sprawling former metropolis” of pyramids, palaces, residences, ball-courts and scores of engraved monumental stones, or stelae, decorated with intricate, otherworldly images and hieroglyphs.

“Sitting on the stone steps of the Central Acropolis,” Jenkins recalls, “I looked around me at the towering sentinels of stone, their upper platforms stretching above the jungle canopy like altars to the stars, and I listened carefully to the wind whisper messages of a far-off time, and of another world.”

Jenkins wasn’t the first 22-year-old traveler with spiritual yearnings to encounter the sublime at a Mayan archaeological site, but he is one of the few who has found a life’s vocation in the process. As harmonically as Jenkins was struck in Guatemala by the larger mysteries of the Maya, however, it was the calendar that really seized him — specifically the fact that there were Maya living in the highlands who still followed the same day count as their distant ancestors. (A common misconception is that the Maya “disappeared” when their cities emptied; there are six million Maya currently living in the states of Central America, a number far larger than population estimates of Mayan civilization during the Classic period.)

“Here was an unbroken tradition,” Jenkins told me when I went to visit him at his home in Windsor, Colo., one afternoon in late March. We sat in a pair of lawn chairs in the backyard while a neighbor passed back and forth on a noisy tractor. “It’s a lineage going back 2,000 years,” he said, oblivious to the racket. Jenkins, now 43, is difficult to distract when talking about the Mayan calendar and 2012. After years of working as a software engineer to support his research and writing books and papers in his spare time, 2012 is now Jenkins’ full-time job. Influenced by the work of the pioneering psychedelic writer Terence McKenna — whose Timewave Zero system, based on computer analysis of the I Ching, also shows history to be culminating on Dec. 21, 2012 — Jenkins argues that ancient Maya “calendar priests” were able to chart a 26,000-year astronomical cycle called “the precession of the equinoxes” with the naked eye. He fixed the 2012 end date to coincide with a “galactic alignment” of the winter-solstice sun and the axis that modern astonomers draw to bisect the Milky Way, called the galactic equator.

In the alchemical tradition, Jenkins notes, eclipses signify the “transcending of the opposites.” During the period around 2012, Jenkins says, the galaxy will provide the opportunity for the rebirth of creation and a reconciliation of “infinity and finitude, time and eternity.” The Maya knew it, and just like an alarm clock, they set their calendar to coincide with the occasion.

Jenkins and his fellow travelers in the 2012 movement have chosen a particularly arcane source of secret knowledge in Mayan calendrics. The Maya calendar keepers are known to have charted the cycles of the moon, the sun, Mars and Venus with an accuracy that wouldn’t be duplicated until the modern era. Like most premodern societies, the Maya conceived of history not as the linear passage of time but as a series of cycles — they called them “world age cycles” — that would repeat over and over. To capture these cycles, the Maya employed what scholars call the long-count calendar, a five-unit computational system extending forward and backward from their mythical creation day, which is calculated to have fallen on either Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. or Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. All the current hoopla is due to the mathematical fact that the current world-age cycle on the long count, which began in Aug. 3114 B.C., is about to reach its end, 5,126 years later, on a date given in scholarly notation as — which falls, not quite exactly, on Dec. 21, 2012. Enter the apocalypse.

I asked Jenkins how he viewed the passing of one world-age cycle into another in December 2012, and he paused. It was a little bit like asking a seismologist what he thinks about earthquakes. As much as Jenkins has made a place for himself in the 2012 discussion through his independent research on the Maya and precession, he has made an even greater impact by applying academic rigor to the theories of his contemporaries and exposing, in his books and on an extensive Web site, their inconsistencies with established Mayanist scholarship. Jenkins was the first to reveal a major flaw in the synchronization between Arguelles’s Dreamspell and the Mayan day count, and he has been involved in an extensive, long-distance feud with Calleman since 2001 over their differing approaches to interpreting the Maya and over Calleman’s belief that the end time will be in 2011, not 2012. When I first spoke to Jenkins on the phone, he told me, “I think of myself as leading the charge for clarity and discernment.”

“2012 is such a profound archetype,” Jenkins went on. “Here we are five and a half years before the date, and already there’s so much interest. Personally, I think it’s about transformation and renewal. It’s certainly nothing as simplistic as the end of the world.”

But what about the connection many people see between the approach of 2012 and environmental crisis? I asked. What about the popular link between the Maya and end-time prophecy?

“A lot of people are talking about apocalypse right now,” he said, “but there’s a deeper meditation that can and should happen around the end date.” Jenkins — bearded, in a T-shirt and jeans — is originally from Chicago, and traces of a flat Midwestern accent remain in his voice. He looked and sounded beleaguered by the mention of apocalypse. “At any end-beginning nexus — at the dawn of a new religion or a spiritual tradition — you have this amazing opening,” he said. “Revelations come down. There’s a fresh awareness of what it means to be alive in the full light of history.”

To scholars monitoring the 2012 movement from their posts in academia — and some do — this latter-day apotheosis of the Mayan calendar is a source of frustration and an opportunity for deeper reflection. Or sometimes, just an opportunity. Anthony Aveni, an archeoastronomer and professor at Colgate, has a history with 2012 going back to the Harmonic Convergence, when he was interviewed on CNN to provide some perspective. “I got an offer from a literary agent to represent me the same day,” he told me. “So I’m grateful to José Arguelles for that.”

Aveni is critical of Jenkins’s approach and his galactic-alignment theory. “I defy anyone to look up into the sky and see the galactic equator,” he said. “You need a radio telescope for that, and they were not known anywhere in the world that I’ve heard of until the 1930s.” The real question, to him, is how an obscure, culturally circumscribed issue like the end date of one Mayan long-count cycle could manage to gain such traction in the wider world.

“Jenkins and Calleman and Arguelles are the Gnostics of our time,” Aveni said. “They’re seeking higher knowledge. They look for knowledge framed in mystery. And there aren’t many mysteries left, because science has decoded most of them.”

John Hoopes, an archaeologist at the University of Kansas, is more complimentary of Jenkins’s research, even if he doubts the validity of his major conclusions, including the galactic-alignment theory. “John Jenkins has done his homework on the ancient Maya,” he told me, “and he’s thought about their culture a great deal. Arguelles and Calleman largely disregard what we know the Maya believed.” Still, like most Mayan experts, Hoopes is not convinced that the Maya would have considered the end of a world cycle to be an apocalyptic event; one cycle could be subsumed into the next without a hiccup in the system, let alone a rupture in the count of days.

In the wider discussion around 2012, Hoopes sees a parallel to the debate going on in Kansas about teaching evolution and intelligent design in the public schools. It is an issue he takes so seriously that he has included the 2012 phenomenon in a course he developed called “Archaeological Myths and Realities,” which explores how science and history are manipulated to serve a religious or political agenda. Other examples include Nazi archaeology and the recently heralded ancient “pyramids” in Bosnia. Referrring to occult interpretations of the Maya, he says: “What’s interesting is how this fosters community in the New Age movement, and elsewhere, the same way that the anti-evolutionists have coalesced around intelligent design. I’ve started using the terms ‘religious right’ and ‘spiritual left.’ ”

Toward the end of my visit with Jenkins in Colorado, we drove from his home in Windsor to Denver — about 50 miles south — to meet his wife, Ellen, for dinner and a screening of “2012: The Odyssey,” a documentary that Jenkins appears in along with José Arguelles and other authorities on 2012. Jenkins had written me a long, discouraged e-mail message that morning about an item he found on an academic message board, linking to an article about 2012 from USA Today. The article included a description of Jenkins’s galactic-alignment theory without citing him as the source, and to make matters worse, the scholar who posted the link quoted a description of the galactic alignment and asked, “Anyone want to speculate about what this means?”

To Jenkins, it was further confirmation that his work is generally ignored inside a scholarly community that he has looked to for guidance and cited tirelessly in defense of the “authentic” Mayan tradition. He told me, as we drove past new housing developments going up where pastures had once been, that he had gone to conferences to meet the most important Mayanists and had been sending out papers and links to his Web site to selected scholars for years, but his attempts at making contact were usually ignored.

“When you fund your own trip to do fieldwork by putting it on MasterCard,” he said, “and then they really don’t want to engage in a discussion with you, it’s kind of like … wrong universe, I guess.”

I asked him if he thought this might have something to do with some of his more speculative theories, like his assertion that the Maya had practiced pranayama — yogic deep breathing — based on the posture of Maya kings in certain paintings and carvings, which appears similar to full lotus.

“It’s the assemblage of evidence that leads to my reading,” he insisted. “It’s not magically projecting something onto the images. But ultimately there is some guesswork involved. How often can you be 100 percent sure of anything?”

By the time we drove up to the Oriental Theater in the Berkeley Highlands section of Denver, his spirits had lifted again. The Oriental is a handsome, Persian-themed theater from the 1920s that has recently been refurbished after a long decline; it retains elements of both the glamour of its distant past and the seediness left over from its middle age as an adult theater. Now the Oriental is an arts center with a regular schedule of film screenings and live entertainment.

“Look at that,” Jenkins said with a gesture at the marquee, making sure that I saw the big “2012” in black numerals.

While Jenkins mingled with the early arrivals inside the lobby, I sat at a cafe table with his wife, a social worker at a hospital in Boulder, and Gina Kissell, director of the Metaphysical Research Society, a local group that offers workshops and programs in comparative religion and spirituality. The society was a sponsor of the screening that night, and Kissell, an ebullient woman in a sequined top, was thrilled about the turnout. I asked her about 2012 and what it meant to her, and she started in without hesitating:

“To me it’s all about a movement toward enlightenment. We say compassion over competition. This whole shift in consciousness is going to wipe away everything negative. Armageddon isn’t what it used to be, you know?” Kissell told me that she had recently tried spending 21 days without having a negative thought: “It’s really hard! I tried, but I didn’t make it through the second week.”

Inside the theater, it was a festive scene. The seating sections were all full except for the balcony; a pair of waitresses roamed the aisles taking drink and sandwich orders (the Oriental has a full bar and panini menu); and the crowd presented a mix of the buttoned-down and the Bohemian, trending toward the tattooed and pierced. Ellen flashed me a proud look when Jenkins climbed onstage to give an introduction, and he was met with a lively burst of applause. Dressed in a well-worn jacket over a faded T-shirt, he could have been a professor who never quite recovered from his graduate-school years. Jenkins started by giving a primer of his theory about the galactic alignment and how the ancient Maya had calibrated their long-count calendar to coincide with this rare and transformative astronomical event. He shared his belief, reflected in the mantra “As above, so below,” that our lives are influenced by larger forces in the universe and that the Mayan sky watchers had used their sacred science to read the stars and divine creation’s deepest secrets. These same secrets can be ours, according to Jenkins’s theory, if we cup a hand to one ear, raise it to the sky and listen.

“A lot of people ask me if the world is going to end in 2012,” he said, “and I’ve come up with the best way to address that. The short answer is yes. The long answer is no.”

Writing in the forward to Jenkins’s “Maya Cosmogenesis 2012,” Terrence McKenna proffers that “we, by choice or design, actually live in the end time anticipated by the ancient Maya shaman-prophets. Their bones and their civilization have long since gone into the Gaian womb that claims all the children of time. Indeed, their cities were ghostly necropoleis by the time the Spanish conquerors first gazed upon them, 500 years ago. Yet it was our time that fascinated the Maya, and it was toward our time that they cast their ecstatic gaze, though it lay more than two millennia in the future at the time the first long-count dates were recorded.”

It is a splendid, human-size dream, that an ancient people revered for unearthly wisdom could climb aboard a calendar ship and redeem us from our troubled world and the confines of our vexing natures. Dec. 21, 2012, is already here — long before the date arrives — and perhaps it has always been. End dates are not the stuff of fantasy, after all; each and every one of us has a terminal appointment inscribed in our calendars. And the end might just arrive sooner. Perhaps that is why we need to imagine a supernatural force with one eye on a ticking clock, waiting to make everything new again.

It is the Maya who bring us apocalypse this time, and when the next one comes — well, we’ll just have to wait and see if the world is still here.

Benjamin Anastas, a novelist, previously wrote for the magazine about Pentecostals.

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