Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
Tal Shochat, ‘Lessons in Time #1 (Plum Tree),’ 2016; Triptych, C-PrintsCourtesy Meislin Projects, NY
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The Hybrid Forest

A Q&A with Moshe Shtrauch, whose idea for a solar-powered farm system might make the deserts bloom

by
David Samuels
October 27, 2020
Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
Tal Shochat, ‘Lessons in Time #1 (Plum Tree),’ 2016; Triptych, C-PrintsCourtesy Meislin Projects, NY

Dreams come true. Not always—that’s idiotic. Not often, maybe. Sometimes, a fragment of a dream can manifest itself on earth, while the rest of the dream is deferred to a later date, or is only realized in some other dimension, perhaps in heaven. Sometimes, the dream happens on earth, and then you realize it’s not your dream but someone else’s that you are now trapped inside, and then it takes a whole new cycle of dreaming and also doing to get out of it. The anger that many people, both young and old, often direct at dreams and dreamers often comes from a weird picture, which is the product of disappointment, and is fed to small children by adults, in which dreams are presented as the opposite of so-called “real life,” and therefore both desirable and contemptible. In fact, dreams are as normal as any part of life, a biological product of the cycles of waking and sleeping that heal our brains, and in which our knowledge of ourselves and our worlds are consolidated. So please don’t be angry at dreamers.

Upstate New York, where I have fled the pandemic, is a place that is good for dreaming, both in the summer and also in the wintertime. The landscape is beautiful, remote, and thinly populated. There are broad open meadows at high elevations connected by twisting roads that go up and down over mountains and through forests with the movement of the land. At least until a few months ago, it was easy enough to buy a house with land here for less than the price of a studio apartment in New York City, which has lately been the epicenter of a pandemic.

Along with the house, I also bought myself an old Saab, which will sit inside an unheated garage all winter for fear of the awful things that could happen if I take the looping downhill turns through the mountains at my usual speeds in the snow and ice. Winter is no joke. But for now, my old Saab is the perfect dream machine, which helps me mine some very specific nuggets of sensory information from the early 1990s that would otherwise remain buried in some inaccessible part of my cerebral cortex. Otherwise, it would be a stupid car to own and drive, especially given the tendency of the car’s primitive electrical system to short out.

My county is Ford F-150 and Dodge RAM territory. I knew that, of course. I also understood that the car’s impossibly low price tag was only one half of an inverse equation that also included the cost of servicing a piece of headstrong Swedish engineering that was rendered much less reliable by GM, which ran the company into the ground while sprinkling in ever-larger helpings of substandard parts. So whatever money I imagined I had saved plus some was guaranteed to disappear into some mechanic’s pocket before I finally learned to fix the car myself. Still, the heart wants what the heart wants.

The freak of my own nature that I hadn’t counted on was how much I came to enjoy going to the garage. Did I mention that this area is thinly populated? Did I mention that I live in a meadow adjacent to 177 acres of watershed forest inhabited by rabbits, foxes, bears, and deer? There’s a deli in my town that closes at 4 p.m., on the days when it’s open, as well as a post office and a hardware store with a lumber yard, which is the center of the town’s social life, except on Sundays. The overwhelming majority of my neighbors are cows, who outnumber people here by at least 20:1.

Eric and Loren’s garage, ENA, is located in the county seat of Delhi, and serves as a magnet for the kind of people who buy old Saabs without knowing how to fix them as well as various other types of idiots, tourists, and weirdos. The mechanics who work there, Eric and Loren, are part of the hippie contingent that moved up here during the last time that the American civilization from sea to shining sea trembled on the verge of whatever only half-forgotten catastrophe. You can leave your car with Eric and Loren, and you pay the bill when your car is ready. You can even drive your car over to their parking lot and work on it yourself, which many mechanics would find incredibly annoying but Eric and Loren tolerate with their version of good humor, which includes playing Trump-friendly talk radio at high volume and lending out their tools.

The ENA parking lot is where I met Moshe Shtrauch, a little man with a head that is as bald as a grape and a bursting surplus of all kinds of energy, mental, physical, and spiritual. If you ask Moshe what kind of vitamins he takes, he’ll tell you that he eats only organic foods, before lecturing you about the virtues of tea made from Japanese knotweed, which tops the local invasive species list: If you’re not careful, it will take over your lawn. So it makes sense that knotweed is one of the sources from which Moshe derives his incredible energy.

Also, Moshe can fix anything. When we met, he was fixing up an old truck he had bought for $500. A week later, he would sell it for 10 times that price. When someone brought a bicycle by the garage one afternoon, Moshe fixed it, too. I soon learned that he had farmed up in my county for 12 years after an early career building solar energy systems and a youth spent building rockets in Ramat Gan.

When the pressure seal that keeps the water flowing from a spring in the woods to the pipe that leads into our basement broke on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, I panicked for only a moment before I remembered that I wrote down Moshe’s email address on a card that I fortunately had saved in my wallet. He came over to our house and used the water pump to blow water back through the pipes to clean them out, then reversed it again to reestablish the seal—but only after taking apart the jury-rigged system of pipes and hoses in my basement and simplifying it with new hoses and joints, after which I invited him to stay for dinner, of course, and to come back for Sukkot.

A day or two later, Moshe dropped by for tea in the afternoon, and revealed to me the fullness of his vision of the hybrid forest, which he had mentioned to me the first time we met at the garage. It was a vision that I understood immediately. It could heal the world. It could make the deserts bloom.

The hybrid forest is a vision that is both practical and otherworldly, a combination that is sorely needed in a time when we are increasingly disconnected from our dreams and from dreamers, meaning from ourselves and from each other. It seems important, therefore, that Moshe’s forest, or at least some part of it, is built. The alternative is too depressing to think about.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

David Samuels: What is the hybrid forest?

Moshe Shtrauch: The hybrid forest, which I call Hazon Yarok in Hebrew, is an idea that evolved from my life experience, because I did solar energy and I did recycling and I did agroforestry, and from my interest in spider webs. And then suddenly it all came together.

You barely had to start explaining it to me, before I understood that you had imagined something unique. People have a vision maybe once in their life, five times in their life, whatever it is. And those visions are mostly useless to other people. Except, some are very useful.

I think we are in the right time, in the right place, for this vision.

So to begin, the hybrid forest is an idea that came to me about a year and a half ago. I saw a drawing by a designer at MIT who came up with this self-erecting design for cellphone towers, so they wouldn’t be so ugly. It looks like a Christmas tree and it’s made of mesh, like a giant windsock, and it just would raise itself. It was featured in The New York Times Magazine, which comes out on Sunday. You know, they have this little magazine inside.

Yes.

This magazine has some really good articles, and there are also some really good recipes in the food section. So sometimes I steal it from the library. This was the design issue. And this particular design, for cellphone towers, the minute I saw it, I just got this inspiration that these should really be trees, artificial trees, that would blend technology and natural energy into self-sustaining environments.

[Laughs.] Why did you think that?

I was always an environmentalist in the way I operated since I was a kid. When I came to the United States, I did solar energy. That was my ticket to come into the U.S. It was 1977. I came in, I traveled then I decided to stay. And lo and behold, my cousin who lived in New Jersey, he had started a solar company. My cousin Jerry was a psychologist. He actually passed away just two months ago. A very nice person.

What had happened was we had the oil embargo. There was no oil in the United States, people had to line up for gas. So he said, you know what? I started this company, I have this big project for the Department of Energy, I know nothing about solar, but maybe you know something about it.

I said, “Is this going to be a ticket for me to get my Green Card or whatever?” He says, “Yes. Why not?” They didn’t know anything about solar in this country, so I went back to Israel and I got a couple of letters that said that I’m an expert in solar energy.

So I came back and here I am now owning those solar projects, which I knew nothing about. I mean, I knew the sun rises, I knew that you can make hot water from it, so I started running those projects for Jerry. One of them, in New Jersey, is still operational, some 40 years later. It was an old people’s home, 11 stories high. It was all cement, and we had to put those massive solar system on the roof and big tanks on the bottom to provide a heating system to heat water.

Eventually I decided to move to California, where I knew there was a bigger industry, and I started two solar companies. One was Environmental Solar Design, which is still operational, and I started another one. And then Reagan came to power, and there was massive lobbying from the gas companies that he kill solar because every time we’d go and fire up one of those systems, their revenues dropped 80% and they got really pissed off. So that’s what they did. Carter put solar panels on the White House and then Reagan came in and took them off. So anyway, they killed the whole industry, and I decided to move out of it.

But the U.S. had a lot of money invested in these industries and a lot of the patents were American. The photovoltaic systems were invented in the U.S. for the space program. So what happened is that a lot of the technology was sold to the Germans and to the Japanese, who bought these technologies for pennies on the dollar. And the U.S. just walked away from it.

And now, some 40 years later, who is doing well with this? Japan and China are doing very well because they both have the technology. Today I think China produces 50% or 60% of the solar panels in the world. Germany is doing now 70 forms of alternative energy and closing their nuclear power plants; they already closed half of them.

So I was always in tune with what is happening around as far as energy, as far as recycling, as far as organic farming, which I also did.

Tell me how you came to work in the forests up here. Because these two ideas come together, energy and forests, in the hybrid forest.

Well, I used to clean toilets in Sidney, New York, because I couldn’t find a job. That’s when I started with the forests.

What happened is that I used to do organic farming and I had a job at night working at Amphenol, which makes connectors for the military. They have about 1,500 people working for them. So I used to work there at night just so we can have insurance for the farm. And I was working the farm and making babies. Then Amphenol started letting people go because the jobs went to Mexico and to China.

Our wonderful American elite realized that they could make a lot more money by moving other people’s jobs to places that use slave labor.

They use slave labor. Sometimes kids’ labor, whomever you need to abuse in order to make a buck. And, of course, it’s worse than that, because Amphenol is a major polluter which has been in the area for 100 years. They used a lot of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. There’s a whole cancer alley behind Amphenol, which was located right on the Susquehanna River, so when the floods came it poisoned people who live downstream.

So they moved my job to Mexico, even though it was unionized. Apparently, I had rubbed management there the wrong way. I lost my job at Amphenol at the same time as I went through a divorce. I wanted to teach solar energy and all this stuff but every time I tried to get any of those jobs—any job, it didn’t matter—I lacked the right credentials, because of course I’m from Israel and I am largely self-taught. And when people here heard the name Moshe, and looked at me, at my age, I couldn’t find a job.

There was a wonderful woman named April who worked at the county Opportunities Center who tried to help me, she said she had never seen somebody that’s having such a struggle getting a job. Finally, she found me part-time work at the center working as a janitor for four hours a day. One afternoon April says to me, “I’ve got a perfect job for you. It’s in agroforestry. It’s a Chinese company that came around and they are looking to repopulate the forests around here with ginseng.”

Ginseng is a very coveted herb in China for the last 6,000 years, and it turns out that American ginseng from the Catskills is one of the most coveted kinds of ginseng. The locals used to go and dig the ginseng, get a few hundred, sometimes $2,000 a pound, and they never replenished it. And it takes a long time for it to grow. So anyway, it was a great market.

What kinds of trees do you need to grow good ginseng?

Mostly maple. Maple is the kosher way to go with ginseng. You grow the ginseng in a whole forest, and it usually faces north. It can’t be facing a mountain, it has to be 70% light. When you go into a forest, you look for the indicator plants that show you where ginseng would grow. Ginseng is not easy to find.

The owner, she was Asian, and her son were running the business with a bunch of young kids half my age working there. Anyway, I interviewed and right away they said, “Yeah, you would be a good fit because you know farming and also have a brain.” You don’t want to be a brain that works just with a cellphone in the forest, which I’ve seen plenty of.

Anyway, I became a supervisor and we were preparing a few hundred acres every year. We would plant ginseng, basically seeds.

How long do they take to mature?

Nine to 10 years. It’s illegal in some states for you to remove them before.

But anyway, their system apparently was that a few years ago, a lot of Chinese from Taiwan or Hong Kong wanted to come to the United States if they paid a half a million dollars or whatever it is in direct investment in the U.S. So this was like an investment scheme too.

Got it. So that way they could show that they were in business in the United States.

For 10 years, and not getting a crop, you know.

Right. Amazing.

Yeah. I figured that out while I was working with them. I kept asking, “What is your return? How does it fly?” You know.

Right. And then you were like, “Aah.”

Yeah, behind the scene is the scheme.

Yes. This is often how things work in America. A member of my family used to develop wonderful lower income housing with federal grants. They’d transform an old mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, into a senior housing complex. I remember asking him once when I was teenager, “I don’t understand this business. These are nice buildings, the old people live in them, which is great, but they’re all poor, so how do you make money?” The answer of course was that he didn’t make money. But he could sell the losses at a profit.

You get rich by losing money!

You remember what Trump said? That he would use any tax trick he can to his advantage. There’s many schemes like that. Like the CO₂ selling, let’s say if you have a power plant that burns coal, the clean coal that Trump invented, then you sell it to the people who have those big solar farms or wind farms, and the entire system of credits perpetuates itself.

Remember we talked about the Galgal at the garage?

Yes.

Gal is a wave. So “GalGal” is like two waves, together going around and around.

Now we’re in the ocean, Moshe. Let’s get back to the forest. There are trees there.

Big trees, and not only that. There are these beautiful spider webs. I took pictures of them. And then one day actually I woke up in the middle of the night, and I started writing haiku about them. I became obsessed. So I said, “Wow, what would happen if you can create a canopy for a tree that’s made of like spider webs, but the spider web can take solar energy, let some sunlight in, but still capture some of the light.”

And you know that spider webs are about 10 times stronger than steel. Not only that, now there’s a whole technology, some of it is in Israel and also in Germany and Japan, where they can actually synthesize and create cloth out of this super material.

Then I did a leap of faith, and I came up with another idea, which I had 40 years ago and I have actually proof of it. I said, instead of making a solar panel, why not make it out of a mesh. A fiber, which is made of material that could move electricity. You can have plastic that can move electricity. So what you do is you coat it in the material that you use to make solar panels. I have figured this part out. And you make it really fast, with a machine, and then you weave it into cloth.

So you have a cloth, which is very flexible and strong.

And it’s cheaper to make. Not only that, when you have a solar panel, which is flat, the sun only hits here. If you have fibers, it can warm any angle. It could go from any angle, it can go from the back.

With solar panels there’s 90 minutes where you are optimally oriented toward the sun, and then the sun moves. So either you have a way to rotate and adjust the panels, or else you are wasting most of the sunlight.

Correct. But a tree doesn’t move, and every leaf gets some sun, you understand? So I connected the two ideas together.

Inventions or ideas always build at least 20% on something that you’ve seen before. There’s something, there is a leap, but mostly it’s small—

Often the leap is combining two things that already exist.

You put two things together and then you get an improvement that might also be a difference in kind.

So, do you remember how I told you about this windsock, a canopy, that looks like a pyramid, but it’s self-assembling, which I saw in the Times Magazine? That kind of structure is going to be the canopy of the tree. So now I have to put a trunk in it.

So I found a Swedish company that makes windmills. They have those massive pillars made of steel, you know. But I found a Swedish company that now makes those pillars out of wood, but it’s as strong as steel. It can go up to 200, 300 feet. It’s unbelievable. It’s basically wood that’s laminated.

So now I start building around this whole idea of a tree. And from a tree you move into the concept of a forest, because you can put a bunch of these wood pillars with solar canopies together, at an ideal distance from each other. So what happens now is that a tree has roots, and the trees has a canopy, and it has a trunk.

This guy, when he designed this thing for the cellphone towers, there was no trunk, but I put a trunk in it. And the trunk has few things that it can do. First, it holds the whole thing. Like it’s like a tent basically. But the light can come in.

The canopy is basically like leaves, but instead of telling it to do green stuff, I’m harvesting solar energy. But under the canopy, I can grow a lot of stuff. OK. And now it’s a controlled environment.

So we can have greenhouses, of course, but greenhouses are very boring. It’s all industrial. It’s nothing like nature.

So what about the roots? A tree needs roots.

Roots are used for two things. If you dig into the ground, the temperature is always 50, 55 degrees. Plus, you can get water from the ground. If you go down far enough, you can actually cool and heat the whole space under the canopy. Just moving water in and out from the ground, if you go deep enough, you can cool and heat this whole area, and create pure water. And the energy for that is coming from the solar.

I can cool and heat your house for one-fifth of the price of any oil or gas, by just putting a solar panel here, and digging a well in the ground. You can actually take heat from the ground, and you can put heat into the ground. You can move heat from one place to another.

Let’s say you want this house warm in the winter, and you want it, let’s say outside it’s 20, 30 degrees, you want to raise it to about 70 degrees. But if you just go 6 feet under, and you already have 55 degrees. Heat pumps work beautiful with 55-degree heat from the ground, and it’s massive because the whole Earth is basically storing it for you. Every kilowatt of electricity that you bring either from solar or from the grid, you can leverage it up to five times. Which is unbelievable.

So I went back to Israel and I’ve been in contact with the Israel technologists who do agrobusiness, which is massive. This was a country that was born out of a shortage of water. So I went there and I started picking up different elements for my tree.

There is actually a company in Israel called Roots. They put pipes underground, and they found out that if you control the temperature for the roots, the plants will give you up to a 60% better crop. OK, now they move slightly further with it and they say, “If we can control the roots, what else can we use those pipes for? They found out that you can actually create water from the ground, through condensation on the pipes that comes from the difference in temperature.

So, if we have a hybrid tree with roots, you can grow whatever you want under it. You can grow coffee, you can grow vegetables. You can also farm fish, because we have water. And because it’s a controlled environment, you don’t lose the moisture.

It sounds like a version of the habitats that they test for humans to live on Mars.

Correct, but we’re doing it on Earth. Which is much easier.

My vision is, and I’m going to jump forward a little bit, to create those forests on every continent. We were talking at the garage about Morocco. But it is mostly desert, yeah?

Right.

Northern Africa in general is in a bad situation. So what you do is start by placing these trees maybe 400 feet away from the ocean, and you start pumping water. You have systems to remove the salts, send the salt back to the system, and then you start growing under those trees. The minute you start establishing a beachhead, you can start moving around. Because you can not only grow under the tree, you can grow outside too. So the hybrid trees become a center, with the suburbs of the farm going outside.

You can make the desert bloom!

What?

I said it’s great, Moshe.

It’s the center of something that is evolving. We create a web, like the worldwide web. We create a web of life. You know that when you start putting back trees, actually the climate changes too. Deserts happen in part because we deforested a lot of areas. This way, you can reverse the whole process—while also bringing cell service and internet to areas of the world that need it.

OK, so I have two questions. The first is the practical question of costs.

What?

What do you imagine the cost per tree is here? If you look at the major elements, you need the laminated wood beam, you need the mesh for the canopy, you need the pipes for the roots.

Yes.

I imagine it costs more than planting a tree in the Negev for $18.

OK. I don’t want to take something out of thin air, but the first variable is the size of the tree.

Let’s say it’s 200 feet tall.

200 feet tall, and let’s say it’s about three or four acres. You’ll need about $200,000 to $300,000, depending on how it is equipped.

Plus maintenance.

Yes, because people are going to need to be living in those forests.

That was my second question. What do you think would motivate people to live this way? And what could they be doing that would create a surplus?

OK.

Obviously, fish farming is a good one.

Fish farming, sure. But you can actually grow anything and everything under it. There are a lot of niche crops that are pretty high value, and you can rotate them and do them in layers, depending on how much light they need.

So you’re looking at a greenhouse economy that supplies its own power and water, and also reforests deserts and provides cellphone and internet service.

Two weeks ago, or a week ago, there was a story about a company that was just given $250 million to create massive greenhouses. Because people realize that controlled environments, this is where the magic happens right now. In the cities, they have those big warehouses where they grow what’s called vertical farming.

I have a friend who has a big warehouse in Las Vegas where he grows very high-end marijuana.

Correct. Marijuana is one. Hops is another. This is a perfect environment in which to grow hops, which is a niche high-end market. Not only that, hops, when they do it in the fields right now, they need to add a lot of nitrogen as a fertilizer. Fish make a lot of nitrogen in their water.

You know that fish is one of the most efficient ways to grow protein? You put only 1.2 pounds of feed, you get one pound of fish. A chicken or cow probably needs 10 times as much.

I can foresee that first you do the beachhead, and then you need a community of six, seven people growing under this canopy. So what would make them move in there? There would be income. The model creates many avenues of income. One of them is creating electricity and creating crops. Then you can put cell towers in them.

Do know how many places in Africa lack cell towers? So if you create a few areas that give cell tower service, it’s good.

So you can basically get local entrepreneurs who want to specialize in growing a high-end niche crop to move in there with their families and start a community there. It’s like an incubator. I can see lots of freaky kids in California or Oregon wanting to live this way, too. You could put them up in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. You could have amazing raves in the desert, with these giant Christmas-tree LED lights blinking on and off, the greatest solar-powered light show in the world, which is also growing the greatest strains of pot in the world while everyone is dancing and livestreaming everything back home, and people could stay and live there full time.

We will plug you into it. We’ll give you a piece. And for governments, this is a tool to help the whole society, the environment, connecting people to the internet, creating more export crops.

I wanted to add something else, which is that all the equipment that does the farming is all electrified. You don’t use diesel or gas.

It’s a living thing, a living system.

The moment you said the words “hybrid forest,” and “solar,” I understood it immediately. It popped. Technically, I imagine the question is going to come down to how good the filaments in the proprietary mesh are at absorbing light.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

The batteries are batteries, they store energy at the rates that batteries store energy. They get better every year. Um, so you’re really looking at the technology for the filament in the mesh and then how expensive that technology—

I can tell you that I already started pricing some of it. This is an area where I worked for over two decades, you know. Solar panels are made of silicon. But there’s a whole new family of products that could change everything.

I don’t know about it.

It’s a special chemistry. You can actually print it, the solar panels, with this material, on cloth, on everything. There was a study done on this material which found it can produce the same amount of electricity per square foot at about one-fifth the price of silicon.

Silicon panels capture what, 12%-15% of the sun’s energy?

No, about 20, 22% now. But this technology can do the same, and they actually predicted it’s going to be higher, up to about 35, 40%. So everybody’s jumping on it, but nobody’s really putting it into a spider web.

It’s great because it has a good balance of the poetry and the practical, right? And when you start pressing on the practical parts, it makes sense. It feels very Israeli, in the assumption of scarcity, and then the creating of a self-contained unit, and then the intensive use of energy for—

Energy or water, or any resource.

Right, to produce a value-added product.

Correct.

But what about the practicality of these giant nets? Birds will fly into them. Uh, what else will happen to them? A big storm will come and tear them apart.

Except they’re so strong that nothing can tear through them. Not only that, what’s nice about them, they can transform themselves from being a big billowing tent to getting very, very skinny, like a closed umbrella. So if you know there’s a big storm coming, you just twist the canopy to become very, very skinny.

That’s great.

[Laughs.]

No, because in a lot of areas where you’d be thinking about deploying something like this, you have terrible storms, like in the desert.

It can also shake itself. Because the minute you turn it around, everything flies off. Um—

Then the question is the glare. When you go into the Negev and you see these big solar arrays, they blind the birds, which fly right into them and destroy the panels, and everything smells like Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There’s no glare from those filaments. Not only that, I tell you something else completely wild. Because it’s all electrified, and if you want to grow at night, you can put LED lights, like those string lights that grow stuff. So it grows 24/7. And if you fly over it will be lit up like red and green Christmas lights.

It’s a Christmas-tree moshav.

You’re right. Because each person owns a part of the deal, and they can grow whatever they want. You can grow crops. You can have chickens under it. You can have goats, whatever you want.

I love this.

But it’s a breathing system, and it grows.

I love this idea. A self-sustaining hybrid tree that can produce all its own energy and water and grow pot and hops while reforesting the desert and reversing climate taking in revenue from Verizon for less than the cost of a crappy one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco or Manhattan where all the restaurants are closed anyway and there’s no baseball and no one has sex for fear of viral contamination!

And it’s a great moment for something like this, because people are depressed. People want something that feels optimistic and like an answer, but they, but it also has to exist in the parameters that the virus is now putting on people’s thinking.

No, I’m pretty happy that you got it. I mean, I was amazed that I was sitting there, I said, “they go Gal,” and you right away got the idea. And I couldn’t spill more because you already said, just shut up, I already got it.

[Laughs.] Good luck, Moshe.

David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, published by Seuil.

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