Voynich: final answer?
September 6, 2017 11:29 PM   Subscribe

A convincing explanation of the mysterious Voynich manuscript is offered by Nicholas Gibbs in the TLS. Previously and many previouslier.

TLDR: it's Latin, but very abbreviated through the use of ligatures. It's a book of medical recipes, long on herbal baths, and borrows recognisable chunks from known manuscripts such as the Trotula, ultimately from Galen, Pliny, and Hippocrates. Its nature has been obscured by cropping which removed essential headings, loss of the index, and by some sections being out of order.
posted by Segundus (61 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
That is indeed very convincing. Holy shit.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:44 PM on September 6 [5 favorites]


I can't believe the TLS published this. It's incredibly unconvincing. The bulk of the relatively short article is on the comparatively easier diagrams; but the difficulties of the script are dismissed through two unparalleled rationales:
a) each character corresponds to a whole abbreviated word (to my knowledge no medieval manuscript works like this) and
b) the fact that this supposed recipe book contains no ingredients is not a problem because the index would have had the ingredients -- even though other similar books contain ingredients with their recipes and there is no evidence that there ever was an index.
I have no doubt that this work, whatever it is, engages with Galen and other medical texts -- but this article does little to prove anything about the text qua text.
posted by crazy with stars at 11:45 PM on September 6 [30 favorites]


I TAKE IT ALL BACK I WAS HACKED
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:53 PM on September 6 [138 favorites]


Podcast
posted by flabdablet at 12:28 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


I'm not at all persuaded that the pictures were produced by so many artists working in tandem. As for the ligatures, the most parsimonious explanation is that this is coincidental. Random letters rarely spell out a word, but are quite likely to make up an acronym. If the author was trying to avoid words then you would end up with no words for plants etc., but many groupings that can be interpreted as the initials of some phrase. That being said, the article reinforces my suspicion that the book is a hoax prepared for sale to a wealthy dupe: if it really has elements copied from herbals and medical texts then the author was probably trying to sell it as a guide to immortality or whatever.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:33 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


It's really annoying that the figure at the top, which is supposed to be an example of a translation/transcription, is brief and barely legible.
posted by carter at 12:42 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


I haven't read prose like this (casually citing classical references via a first-person narrative relating flukes and coincidences) since Graves' The White Goddess.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 12:55 AM on September 7 [9 favorites]


It really strains credibility (and/or the patience of media audiences everywhere who are presented with media poorly matched to content) that there are no side by side comparisons. This is a story about how side by side comparison reveals the truth... but instead they use text to describe how side by side comparison reveals the truth because... ??? Profit?

Somewhere, an editor fucked up.

The first half of this podcast has an interview with him, that I don't have the time to listen to!

Incidentally, podcasts don't show images either.
posted by tychotesla at 1:01 AM on September 7 [8 favorites]


This seems like a bad presentation of what could be a credible theory.
posted by dilaudid at 1:02 AM on September 7 [10 favorites]


Right, I'm not saying it's not possible, but, it could/should be better illustrated.
posted by carter at 1:07 AM on September 7


I see there's an 'authorised' print edition of the manuscript now (I didn't realise the edition I used to have was unauthorised).
posted by misteraitch at 1:51 AM on September 7 [3 favorites]


I mean the solution is easily testable. Just hire some women to sit in decoctions of unidentifiable plants holding lodestones, and see if Atlantis rises or not.
posted by No-sword at 1:57 AM on September 7 [53 favorites]


the fact that this supposed recipe book contains no ingredients is not a problem because the index would have had the ingredients

I think you might be misreading that, crazy. The names of the diseases are (according to the theory) missing because the cropping has removed the page headings and also because of the index; but ingredients and quantities are given in the text (at least, that's the way I read it - as others have said, one would like a lot more detail).
posted by Segundus at 2:06 AM on September 7 [3 favorites]


Gibbs's principal claim, that the Voynich MS belongs to 'the realms of medieval medicine', isn't particularly new or unusual. A lot of research has already been done linking the images in the Voynich MS with similar illustrations in alchemical, herbal and medical manuscripts. Gibbs thinks the Voynich MS is heavily derived from one particular text known as the Trotula (very interesting in its own right), from the medical tradition known as the School of Salerne. Again this doesn't seem too much of a stretch, as it's already pretty widely accepted that the Voynich MS can be linked to other texts in the Salernitan tradition, even though it combines images from these texts with other unique images of its own.

However, Gibbs's claim to have deciphered the text of the Voynich MS is another thing entirely. He doesn't give very specific details in this article, but he seems to be arguing that the Voynich MS isn't in cipher at all, it's just a rather badly written manuscript ('medieval lettering is notoriously fickle') using standard contractions and abbreviations in a rather unorthodox way. This seems to me to strain the bounds of credulity. Gibbs is not the first to notice that some of the characters in the Voynich MS seem to resemble standard abbreviations. But if he believes that each character represents 'an abbreviated word and not a letter', how does he account for the 'labels' that appear against many of the drawings, which seem to consist of groups of characters assembled into single words?

I'm also unimpressed with the casual way Gibbs uses words like 'plainly' and 'clearly' ('plainly medieval cooking stoves .. clearly early forms of samovar .. by now it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is'), and the way he fills holes in one hypothesis by appealing to another. Some of the illustrations seem surprisingly careless and lacking in detail? No problem: 'artists who illustrate instruction manuals are naturally economical and only provide detail where necessary'. The manuscript seems to lack the plant names you'd expect to find there? Again, no problem: they must have been accidentally cut out ('the indexes that should have been there were now absent'). I'll be following this with interest and look forward to further details of Gibbs's proposed interpretation of the Voynich MS, but I'm not holding my breath.
posted by verstegan at 2:30 AM on September 7 [22 favorites]


What sounds strange to me is that there's nothing very surprising in the solution offered - apparently it's just an obfuscated medical text cribbing heavily from common sources of the time, not the work of some crazy cipher genius, an obscure one-off lost language or an elaborate hoax - yet all the medieval manuscript experts who examined the thing failed to pick up on it.

Also if the writing is just a form of latin shorthand, wouldn't all the computational cryptanalysis deployed against the text have figured it out by now?
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:49 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


Truthfully, the article was so bad, I really even didn't catch the theory until I came here. I was reading... reading... reading... Neat all these fact... Where's the theory?
posted by Samizdata at 4:12 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


Didn't he also suggest that the manuscript was also prepared for a single person? Becuase that also suggests that it may have been more heavily written in shorthand because it was more "individualized". Like - consider the notes you took during college lectures. You used a lot of abbreviations, shorthand, and phrases to describe things that you would understand totally. Maybe you'd just write down one word that you knew would strike you and remind you of a whole concept. But somoene else reading it would be totally lost becuase they wouldn['t know how your brain worked.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:31 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


Regardless of the above takedowns, I personally enjoyed reading the article, especially because of the context of other texts. Usually I've only seen the puzzle and cypher angle discussed, which may be more fun to speculate, but doesn't really add much to the discussion. On the other hand learning about historical bathing practices and the existence of the Trotula made for an interesting read.
posted by A hidden well at 5:05 AM on September 7 [7 favorites]


This isn't an argument, it's just a series of assertions plus a lot of "trust me, it's obvious if you know about this stuff, which I do." But he's not the first knowledgable person to try and puzzle out the meaning of this manuscript, so it can't be all that obvious, can it? Is he saying his colleagues are morons?

I'm not saying he's wrong, but this just sounds like another unprovable theory to me, and one that's not really much different from some of the other unprovable theories that have floated around over the years.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:07 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


I think his argument that it was prepared by multiple scribes is interesting. However it would be hard, at the time this was written, to have a group of scribes all transcribe these various primary sources into a single document that took the form of a personalized shorthand for a specific client. It may be more likely that this was copied from other shorthand sources by scribes, and then assembled.

So one of my biggest questions here is that if this is a recognized technique, then surely there should be other examples?
posted by carter at 5:11 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


But yeah - this is relatively easily proved. He just needs to take the dictionary of ligatures that he talks about in the podcast, and apply it to the manuscript, and translate and annotate - and then publish - some of the Voynich pages.
posted by carter at 5:13 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


The real mystery is who hacked me
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:19 AM on September 7 [56 favorites]


Agree with all of the above. Went in expecting that someone had actually translated it, ended up annoyed at the author's tone and lack of actual, you know, results.
posted by anastasiav at 5:30 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


I mean the solution is easily testable. Just hire some women to sit in decoctions of unidentifiable plants holding lodestones, and see if Atlantis rises or not.


Well, yes- this is certainly a valid approach. But the real question is, where does Atlantis rise when you do this? Most would assume the eastern Mediterranean, or the Black Sea, or possibly even the mid-Atlantic, somewhere between the Azores and Bermuda.

However, my own calculations have shown that it will rise just outside of Reading, which could really cause some issues on the M4 if it happens on a weekday.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:32 AM on September 7 [12 favorites]




I was expecting the piece to present a worked example - it reads as if it's setting all that up, and quite cogently if you accept the various propositions and facts presented, but instead it just... ended.

Perhaps some unknown hand chopped off the bits at the end of the original MS that put everything in context. Very meta, TLS, very meta.
posted by Devonian at 5:50 AM on September 7 [21 favorites]


Linguist by training: I read this yesterday and was not at all convinced, it's an unsourced "trust me" thing written as a first person narrative. I was really turned off by all the "and that reminded me of this thing" stuff. If you're going to do this, do it right with actual citations. It was tweeted by Mary Beard which upped the plausibility slightly, I guess.

I've never tried to do anything with Voynich, that's a fool's dream (in the category of trying to figure out where Basque came from IMO), but I've spent a while looking at it because it's fascinating, and there's an incredible variety to what's in there; I am just not sure that it's at all plausible that it's this sort of medical text. To be convinced I'd at least have to see a reconstruction of the missing index he claims is the key to the whole thing. It would also help to see actual argumentation for this whole-word ligature account, which is entirely absent from the TLS piece.

Amusingly, within the last 24hr someone else posted a completely different "convincing" account of the Voynich manuscript that, at least as an academic document, is way more solid. Still not sure about it, though. For purposes of this thread, I think anyone wanting to believe the TLS piece ought to look at the style of argumentation in this arxiv link (which is still a pre-publication of course) to see how you'd have to construct an argument about the Voynich manuscript. If the TLS piece author wants to be convincing, they're minimally going to have to take this kind of narrative strategy, with detailed figures, images, a bibliography, etc.
posted by advil at 5:59 AM on September 7 [11 favorites]


IT'S A COOKBOOK
posted by murphy slaw at 6:10 AM on September 7 [38 favorites]


Nice one-sentence quote from that arxiv link with some useful citations that I think is still true, and a much better example of how to discuss the Voynich manuscript than the TLS piece:
Apart from a few cautious attempts such as Ref. [3], so far no progress has been achieved in deciphering the VM nor even a decision was reached whether the VM has any meaningful content at all [18].
[18], an actual published / peer-review summary of the state of knowledge about the manuscript (What we know about the Voynich Manuscript, by Reddy and Knight, in the Proceedings of the 5th ACL-HLT Workshop on Language Technology for Cultural Heritage, Social Sciences, and Humanities, 2011), may be particularly interesting for people here. It's not clear that Gibbs has ever even heard of this article, let alone dealt with its substantive content.
posted by advil at 6:14 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


I've always thought that the Voynich sound like an alien race from a Yiddish SF TV show. One where the effort to decypher the manuscript picks up a notch when the Voynich ships start screaming through the upper atmosphere to hover over the sites of various antique cities... lordy, it writes itself...
posted by Devonian at 6:17 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


Blowing up the barely legible picture at the top, we learn that according to the author, a line of apparent gobbledygook can actually be read as:

(FL)(d)(oz)(iiij) (e t) (i)(d)(AQ)(e t)(d)(rix) (d)(AR)(a)(i i j) (d) (s)(a)(i j) (e t)(d)(rix) (s)(a)(i ???) (????) (AR)(con)

which is short for:

FOLIA DE OZ 3 ET EX DE AQUA ET DE RADICIS DE AROMATICIS ANA 3 DE SEMINIS ANA 2 ET DE RADICIS SEMINIS ANA 1 2/3 ETIAM AROMATICIS CONTUNDO

which is a recipe?

This smells like (B)(U)(ll)(Sh)(I)(T).
posted by edheil at 6:35 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


murphy slaw: "IT'S A COOKBOOK"

So it's real title would be "Ad servitutem hominis constituit"?
posted by signal at 7:15 AM on September 7 [11 favorites]


which is a recipe?

Add a slice of lime and you've got one hell of a G&T.
posted by Segundus at 7:20 AM on September 7 [6 favorites]


Plainly, we were misinformed. Clearly, this above our karmic paygrade.
posted by y2karl at 8:33 AM on September 7


Yeah, this article isn't even very good by the standards of crank theories about "I solved the Voynich!". Usually you have to have 200 pages of hand-transcribed folios to qualify for this kind of attention.

My money is on the manuscript being a hoax. The text means nothing. I'm less certain if it's an old hoax or a modern one.
posted by Nelson at 8:37 AM on September 7


Segundus: "I think you might be misreading that, crazy. The names of the diseases are (according to the theory) missing because the cropping has removed the page headings and also because of the index; but ingredients and quantities are given in the text (at least, that's the way I read it - as others have said, one would like a lot more detail)."

Yes, you're absolutely right -- thanks for the correction. I still don't think that changes my impression of the article, though.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:12 AM on September 7


I've cracked the code! It reads:

BE SURE TO BATHE IN A DECOCTION OF OVALTINE
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:22 AM on September 7 [19 favorites]


A crummy commercial?? Sonovabitch.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:53 AM on September 7 [3 favorites]


Maybe it is written in Pig Latin, because, inquisition. Maybe it is written in Hittite or Basque, and was for use by speakers of those languages. They say it is missing parts, this writer makes good sense and says to have done copious research. Don't spit at the monkeys, they will throw poop at you.
posted by Oyéah at 10:07 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


which is a recipe?

Add a slice of lime and you've got one hell of a G&T.


Add an olive and you've got a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 10:12 AM on September 7


My work is sort of Voynich-adjacent, but I don't really have the expertise to judge this theory on its merits. A couple of things I do know to be true, however.

--The people I follow on Twitter who have more expertise seem underwhelmed.

--Bombastic "I solved the Voynich" announcements are always and inherently likelier to be false than true.

--Holy cow is that article doing the worst possible job, in its structure, writing, and illustration, of providing evidence for readers to judge its claims.

That last is the most damning to me--when people present bold arguments badly, it's usually to cover up the weaknesses.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:27 AM on September 7 [11 favorites]


"But if he believes that each character represents 'an abbreviated word and not a letter', how does he account for the 'labels' that appear against many of the drawings, which seem to consist of groups of characters assembled into single words?"

From my reading, he was putting those down to some sort of astrological and geographical symbols involving the port of Rhodes.

Dunno; my first thought reading this was, "I thought Eco was dead?"
posted by klangklangston at 12:22 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]


IT'S A COOKBOOK

So close.

The Voynich manuscript is encrypted because ...

*Spoiler Alert*

it's an abortion manual.

I'm sure there's stuff in there about getting a baby as well as getting rid of one, but abortion information is what would make it too hot for plaintext.

This occurred to me a few years ago reading an FPP about carrots when one of the links mentioned that carrots were one of the few plants in the Voynich manuscript which could be readily identified, but I decided I'd wait to say anything about it in case there was another Voynich FPP someday.
posted by jamjam at 3:16 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]


Well color me disappointed. Still & all it's both somewhat cool & fitting that he's descended from legendary medieval alchemist John Dee.
posted by scalefree at 9:07 PM on September 7


I see there's an 'authorised' print edition of the manuscript now (I didn't realise the edition I used to have was unauthorised).

Don't copy that floppy...page.
posted by scalefree at 9:09 PM on September 7


It makes perfect sense once you decode the cryptic references to a "half-blood prince."
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:47 AM on September 8 [3 favorites]


You know that it's the woman in you that brings out the manuscript in me
posted by thelonius at 10:20 AM on September 8 [5 favorites]


So much for that Voynich manuscript “solution”---after a fairly credulous posting on the original story (The mysterious Voynich manuscript has finally been decoded), Ars Technica posts a conspicuously breezy roundup of some of the reactions to the whole debacle.
posted by bonehead at 2:54 PM on September 10 [6 favorites]


Thanks for that, bonehead. I'm amazed how many people I know read the original TLS article and were like "well, that's solved now". I guess I shouldn't be surprised that casually interested people aren't more skeptical. After years of reading solutions I have a gimlet eye.
posted by Nelson at 11:40 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


"So much for that Voynich manuscript “solution”---after a fairly credulous posting on the original story (The mysterious Voynich manuscript has finally been decoded), Ars Technica posts a conspicuously breezy roundup of some of the reactions to the whole debacle."

As a certified not-expert, it seems like Gibbs' explanation is a plausible theory that needs actual scholarship to engage with it — many of the objections, like that the Latin grammar wouldn't work, seem to have missed that Gibbs isn't arguing that it's sentences, rather he's arguing that they're series of abbreviations in repeated forms. That's something that he doesn't seem to have proved as a real matter — it would involve far more than two lines fitting this pattern, and he'd need to produce a substantial number of them to be peer reviewed before any real confidence could be put in this conclusion. And similar to the complaints about grammar, the criticisms that he was saying a bunch of things that we already know or suspect is also not particularly damning — you would expect any legitimate scholarship to comport with a substantial amount of previous research on the manuscript.

I dunno, it just seems like a lot of the ire he's getting seems better explained by academics regarding him as a self-aggrandizing dilettante who popular press is asking them to take seriously, rather than any real comment on his tiny bit of actual argument. He could be onto something; if so, he needs to back it up with real evidence. Otherwise, it just seems to fall into the "aliens did it" level of History Channel speculation.
posted by klangklangston at 10:12 AM on September 11


(Likewise, my current theory that it was an illiterate apprentice scribe filling in the equivalent of lorem ipsum to practice letter forms before being allowed to copy something legitimate — essentially a pre-scrape practice palimpsest — has zero real evidence but seems as plausible as assuming there's actual meaning in the lettering.)
posted by klangklangston at 10:15 AM on September 11


it seems like Gibbs' explanation is a plausible theory that needs actual scholarship to engage with it

The burden of proof is with Gibbs. Let him produce some actual translations or other specific textual evidence his theory is correct. And the concept of "peer review" is valuable, but as the takedown notices the TLS article has none. He didn't even bother to notify the folks at Yale, the place that owns the actual physical document.

The Voynich is this weird stupid thing. It has little to no academic value. No one serious studies it. As one friend told me, there are plenty of medieval manuscripts we do know how to read that have gone untranslated because no one has the time to read the handwritten Latin. Not to mention zillions of documents in hard-or-impossible to decipher lost languages. The reason the Voynich captures the imagination is the fantastic illustrations. That, and a fun history going back to John Dee and forward to a lot of famous cryptographers. I mean, even Alan Turing took a crack at it.
posted by Nelson at 11:49 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


New Yorker piece on this whole thing.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:25 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


klangklangston, I do agree with you that much of the reaction to this piece has come off as rather unsavory credential gatekeeping, e.g. medievalist Karl Steel's tweet "Matthew, you're a zoologist." He clearly intends this as a killer burn -- as though being a zoologist means that you have no insight whatsoever to provide. Ugh.

That said, this is a crazy theory that really shouldn't be given the time of day. I have no idea why the TLS published it, except that it's clearly not because of the theory's merits. To stir up controversy and draw some eyeballs? The attractiveness of the 1st person narrative? A personal favor behind the scenes?
posted by crazy with stars at 8:50 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


rather unsavory credential gatekeeping

The full exchange from the new yorker piece:
A screenshot of this tweet by the Colby professor Megan Cook had gone moderately viral. A response to the screenshot from a man named Matthew read, “Well the @TheTLS article does include coherent and believable translations as well as an explanation of why it is the way it is.” In response, Steel had tweeted, “Matthew, you’re a zoologist.”
If whoever Matthew is hadn't been attempting to make an authoritative (but utterly wrong in ways that reveal complete ignorance of the standard of explanation required) response, I'd have a bit more sympathy in calling the zoologist ding unsavory. Not to mention that this Matthew was responding most directly to a woman who is easily ascertainable to be an expert in highly relevant topics, something that being a zoologist (or male) doesn't get you.
posted by advil at 11:44 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


The Voynich Manuscript and Truth on the Internet by Josephine Livingstone.
posted by Kattullus at 11:58 AM on September 13


Oops! I failed to reload to check if Livingstone's piece had been posted.
posted by Kattullus at 11:59 AM on September 13


advil: "If whoever Matthew is hadn't been attempting to make an authoritative (but utterly wrong in ways that reveal complete ignorance of the standard of explanation required) response, I'd have a bit more sympathy in calling the zoologist ding unsavory. "

I'm certainly not trying to defend Matthew. He's clearly wrong and his tweet added nothing to the conversation. I'm saying that Steel's tweet singled out Matthew's professional status as a zoologist as *the* reason why his contribution should be dismissed, instead of e.g. his ignorance of the standard of explanation required -- and if that's not gatekeeping centered around the question of credentials, I don't know what is.

I think that kind of credentialing is especially unfortunate when it comes to the decipherment of obscure texts and languages, since historically outsiders have sometimes provided vital contributions. Famously of course it was the architect Michael Ventris who deciphered the Bronze Age Linear B tablets (building on the work of American classicist Alice Kober) and showed them to have an early form of Greek.
posted by crazy with stars at 4:30 PM on September 13


The fact is, being a zoologist in no way equips you to make authoritative statements about ancient manuscripts, whereas being a medievalist does. Credentials correspond to training and expertise, and I don't see why we should pretend that it doesn't because there have historically been some exceptions, largely in an era where academic research worked quite differently.

Related: https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-linguistics-such-a-magnet-for-dilettantes-and-crackpots.
posted by advil at 9:44 AM on September 14


"The burden of proof is with Gibbs. Let him produce some actual translations or other specific textual evidence his theory is correct. And the concept of "peer review" is valuable, but as the takedown notices the TLS article has none. He didn't even bother to notify the folks at Yale, the place that owns the actual physical document."

Well, yeah. I thought that I'd been pretty clear in noting that he didn't meet that burden of proof. Specifically, one of my complaints was that many critics were acting like he said more than he actually did, so they were rebutting arguments he hadn't made.

"If whoever Matthew is hadn't been attempting to make an authoritative (but utterly wrong in ways that reveal complete ignorance of the standard of explanation required) response, I'd have a bit more sympathy in calling the zoologist ding unsavory. Not to mention that this Matthew was responding most directly to a woman who is easily ascertainable to be an expert in highly relevant topics, something that being a zoologist (or male) doesn't get you."

He's a zoologist and science historian. She's a medievalist who specializes in Chaucer, rare books and Middle English. He was responding to her retweet of another historian's blunt response of "Nah." The reply was by Steel, who is a medievalist who specializes in medieval animal trials and comparative literature. It was a pithy, snarky rejoinder on Twitter; it was also glib credentialism in response to someone who said that Gibbs deserved a more in-depth response than "Nah." Neither are linguists, neither are paleographers or graphologists, neither are manuscript experts — Steel backs his authority by pointing to other medievalists who are, but who posted much more detailed and extensive critique, along with a healthy dollop of snark (notably Lisa Fagin Davis).
posted by klangklangston at 10:17 AM on September 14


He's a zoologist and science historian. She's a medievalist who specializes in Chaucer, rare books and Middle English.

Together, they fight crime!
posted by Chrysostom at 10:54 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


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