Category Archives: Blogging

Spring-cleaning the blogsite

springcleaningI know officially we are still in winter in the northern hemisphere so it might be a little premature to think about spring-cleaning. And indeed I’m nowhere ready to throw open all doors and windows into the house to let in the clean air which was my grandmother’s preparation for cleaning the house top to bottom. It’s far too cold right now for that kind of malarkey.  But with the fifth anniversary of this blog imminent it feels the right time to do a bit of a dust and polish of the site. I’ve also been goaded into action by some tips shared via a podcast I follow called Pro-Blogger which has some useful advice on how to make your blog more effective.

I’m gradually working my way through all the 100-plus editions of the podcast. Some are not relevant because they are designed for people who want to monetise their site or have a self-hosted domain. But one piece of advice I’ve started to follow is about improving old content.

Darren, the guy behind Pro-Blogger says he has a weekly habit to revisit old posts and assess if they can be improved – maybe redirecting links to more recent content, adding new ones or updating the content with more current information.   His point is a few minutes spent on tweaks can mean readers get a better experience of the site. Plus each time you refresh the page, it is crawled by Google so you get more chance your site will be included in search engine results.

I’ve started with my posts from year one of the blog. What an eye-opener that has been. When I started back in 2012 I really didn’t know a) how to blog b)how to write a good review. So the early posts were very insubstantial. No links, no formatting of text to help guide readers around the page more easily, no photos to break up the text. These are all changes I’ve been making over the past week. I’ve also changed categories, tags and headings. Often I’m making small cosmetic changes such as ensuring consistency in the format and colour used for headings and book titles. I don’t want to alter the actual content unless I think a reader would get to the end of it and wonder why they bothered wasting their time. So with a few of them got more of an overhaul – like my first Booker prize title review The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens where I combined the review with some earlier published content about the author.

I’ll finish 2012 by the end of the week and then move onto the next 12 months. It’s something I can do easily in about 20 minutes per post and watch TV at the same time.

One positive thing has come out of this exercise – it’s shown me than in five years though I still consider myself to be still very much a learner, I have definitely improved.

How are your blogging skills?

Though I’ve learned a lot in the last five years there are still aspects of blogging that mystify me so I’ve been making a conscious effort to learn how to fix issues and some new techniques. What have you learned recently that has made a difference to your own blogging?

Blog Feedreaders – Recommendations Needed

sundaysalonOn this grey and rather windy Sunday I’ve been doing some clean up of the long list of blog sites I follow – not just for book stuff but other interests like genealogy and crafts. Problem is to keep up with all of these in a reasonable time frame which is where feedreader are enormously helpful. But I’ve yet to find a great one so I’m hoping a few of you with more experience than I have can come to my rescue.

I currently use two readers:

  • one that is part of WordPress which I like in some ways because I can decide whether I want each new blog post sent immediately on publication or a weekly digest. i also like the fact I can get the alert coming into the email in basket so I can quickly decide do I want to do anything other than read it (such as like it or read comments, or add a comment). But it does clog up the email basket quickly. However I know I am not good at keeping up to date with the Reader Feed on wordpress itself and there is no way of marking which post I read. Nor can I find a way to put different blogs into categories so I could get one feed for book bloggers, another for publishers and another say for genealogy.
  • Because WordPress can’t meet all my needs I created a Bloglovin account which fills in some of those gaps – it lets me put groups of topics together. But it’s not that user friendly. For one thing -I don’t like the fact the reader gives me only a few lines of the post and to read more I then have to click and then often to leave a comment click again. And then if I want to tweet this or include the url in a post I find it shows the bloglovin url rather than the actual url on the site. Very time wasting. The big problem however – and this is getting to me more than an irritation  – Bloglovin  does not like to work on my iPad. It keeps crashing no matter how many times I try uninstalling/reinstalling and then updating.

There has to be a better solution around – one that will work effectively with Apple products which is all I have (laptop, phone and tablet). I want a reader that is uncomplicated to use, gives me flexibility to manage feeds of different categories and from different blog host platforms) and is ideally free.

What do you all use – have you found an ideal solution? Please let me know before I lose all my hair and nails fretting about this.

Technology challenged

I shall let you in on a secret. I’m old enough to remember a time before laptops and desk top computers.

tehnology bluesAs I bashed out news stories on an ancient manual Remington, cursing the keys that kept jamming, I looked longingly at adverts for electric typewriters. But the newspaper company I worked for was stuck in the dark ages. I changed to a company I’d heard equipped their journalists with portable computers. No more rushing out of the court room to try and find a public phone that worked so I could dictate the story before deadline. Paradise would soon be mine I thought. Hmm. The machine was portable strictly speaking but still took muscles the size of Popeye’s to lug around in its metal carrying case. And then to use it to file stories you had to couple some rubber caps over the speaker of the phone. But the caps were round and my phone at home had oblong speakers. So no hope of rolling out of bed late and still making the deadline.

I changed careers and this time got  a desk top computer. It was progress of a sort but it was DOS based so not wonderful. We bought an Amstrad at home and – after much frustration – got it to connect to something called the Internet. What a revelation. When my husband needed my help to write colour pieces on “preparing for your wedding’ I could with a few clicks discover wedding traditions in other countries with which to regail readers.

Life – and technology – moved on. Today I can sit in my garden typing this post while connected seamlessly to the Internet. My iPad tells me when I’ve read more pages of a book on the Kindle than I have on the iPad and do I want it to synchronise for me. At work with a few clicks I can share my computer screen so I can collaborate real time on documents and presentations with colleagues in other parts of the world. I can even do teleconferences via the computer from home and no-one will ever know I’m still in my PJs…..

And yet….

You knew there was a but coming didn’t you???

Though I consider myself to be technology savvy I have yet to conquer some of the whistles and bells capabilities of the WordPress platform I use to create this blog. I managed after a fashion to grasp the basics (and I do mean basic) of HTML. But I absolutely cannot get some of the widgets to work.

Three times this week I tried to create a poll. I see it on the draft version of the post. But when I go to preview, all I see is a string of code.

I can’t get the icons for my social media accounts to increase in size either. If you look on the right menu on my home page, you’ll see how minuscule they are.

Nor can I get the tagline of the site to appear lower down the header image so it is more readable.

Is it me or is it really this difficult???

 

It’s Saturday…

I should really be packing my suitcase for my trip to India later tonight. OR writing my letter of complaint about the way our local council is handling its proposal to downgrade our library to a voluntary service. I should also be tackling the bottomless pit that constitutes our ironing basket.

I am doing none of these things.

I am instead getting distracted by the multitude of interesting bookish type pieces of news coming through from blogs I follow and newsletters etc.  I thought I’d share a few of these with you (you’ll thank me for this I’m sure since you know you don’t want to be doing ironing, shopping etc either).

bookshop imaginationFirst item to catch my attention was this photo collection showing imaginative techniques some booksellers are using to get us to buy more of their stuff. These people have far more wit and creativity I have. I just wish the website had indicated where to find these wonderful places. Take me to them right away!

 

Then I saw that Ragan.com has published a very useful 16-point checklist that bloggers can use to make sure your content is top notch before you press the publish button.  Some of the 16 points are, I would hope, common sense actions we all take anyway – like checking for spelling errors. But there are others that I don’t think about such as “Did I break up my content into sections with headings?”. I know I do with some long posts but maybe not enough. I also don’t pay much attention to tagging photos or content. Maybe you’ll find some new tips yourself from this article.

And finally, a thought-provoking piece in the Guardian about the future of writing. With a headline The Death of Writing, how could I resist? The full title of the article is the Death of Writing – if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google – in which Tom McCarthy argues that today:

it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde. It is they who, now, seem to be performing writers’ essential task of working through the fragmentations of old orders of experience and representation, and coming up with radical new forms to chart and manage new, emergent ones.

McCarthy’s argument isn’t one that can be summarised easily so I suggest you take a look yourself. I’ve read it through twice now and am still trying to work out my response.

Book blogs minus the reviews?

During the clean up of my email in box (now down to a more manageable 250 unread emails) I came across an old post on the 101 books blog where Robert had commented that he doesn’t like reading book reviews on blog sites. “Book reviews are boring,” he declared, a simple statement which provoked a lively debate.  To be fair, he also said that he finds the act of writing them on his own site rather tedious and he would rather just write about other book related topics, facts about authors that you didn’t know for example.

People who left comments seemed to agree on a few things: writing a good review takes time and effort and you need to do more than just explain the plot if you want to engage people. A few people said they were not at all interested in other people’s reviews or that they only read those where the featured author was one in whom they were already interested. One big area of agreement seemed to be that blog sites which featured only reviews were a turn off.

I can certainly relate to the comment about how much effort it takes to write a review that might be worth other people reading. Hence why I am about 10 reviews behind right now – I keep procrastinating because I want to say something more than just whether I enjoyed the book.  There is an art to this reviewing business, especially if you want to do more than simply regurgitate the plot or repeat the publisher’s blurb. I look at pieces written by professional reviewers in some of the leading newspapers and sigh because they are light years ahead of my attempts. Despite sniffy comments from some quarters (Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously was one of the guilty ones here) some bloggers are equally as skilled in reviewing and even though I don’t particularly have an interest in the author or the genre, I enjoy seeing what they think or feel.

But just as a diet of ice-cream and cakes would get tedious after a day or so, I’m not enthused by reading review after review after review. I find that I can get through only so many straight review items in my feed reader before I’m longing for something different. I’ve tried mixing up my own posts to try and avoid equally boring my own readers – actually I find these non review posts much more fun to write. And I’ve been experimenting too with how I write the reviews – giving them a (hopefully) more interesting title than just the name of the book and the author. So far I’ve just done two reviews using that new approach – my ‘5 reasons to read The Miniaturist’ and ‘A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar’. A small start but at least it’s a start.

What are your thoughts on reviews – do you try to mix them up on your own site with non-review posts? What do you think of sites that have very few reviews?

Here’s the original post on Robert’s blog if you are interested: http://101books.net/2014/06/27/5-things-your-mom-didnt-tell-you-about-book-blogging/

Inspiring Blogger Award

blogger-awardI don’t care how many years it’s been since I was skipping around because my teacher had given me a gold star  the warm glow you get when someone sends praise your way, never goes away. Thanks to two kind bloggers I therefore had a rather broad grin on my face this past few days. Stephanie at So Many Books and Ali at HeavenAli both nominated me  for the Very Inspiring Blog Award. Thank you ladies!

The rules are:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

7 Facts About Me

  • My very first job involved decorating cakes in my parents’ bakery. If you need anyone to stick jam into doughnuts or cream into eclairs, just let me know.
  • My first career was in journalism. Anyone who thinks that’s a glamorous job should think again. I reported on everything from crime to political corruption to industrial disputes. The worst job was having to write a weekly report about cricket in the summer and football in the winter. I knew zero about either sport and my teams never seemed to win – ever.
  • I’ve met Anthony Hopkins and enjoyed a glass of wine with him. No Fava beans were involved fortunately – he’d only recently won the Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter so I think he was a bit tired of that diet.
  • Nothing makes me more cross than broadcasters who pronounce ‘aitch’ as ‘hatch’. While we’re on the subject of pet peeves, all my colleagues know never to use the word ‘leverage’ in my hearing or sight.
  • I love to travel – my favourite country so far is South Africa
  • As a Welsh national, I am supposed to be able to sing (if you ever watch a film or tv programme about Wales they always feature people singing). I can’t. I absolutely cannot hold a note so if you want to stay my friend, make sure you never invite me for karaoke.
  • According to the Kingdomality personality profile, in a medieval society I would be the discover – someone who is always looking for new experiences and thrives on change. If you have never done this, go to kingdomality.com – it’s far more fun than Myers Briggs and is uncannily accurate. Will you be a Black Knight or a merchant? A bishop or a merchant?

 And now for the nominations

Many of the bloggers I follow regularly and interact with most have already been nominated so I thought I’d spread the wealth with my own nominations.

  • Stu at Winstons Dad’s blog: for inspiring us all to read more works in translation
  • DoveGreyReaders: an eclectic mixture of book reviews, gardening and local history from Devon
  • wordsandpeace.com: Emma deserves an award from the French government for drawing so much attention to books about and from that country
  • Literary Exploration  Michael wasn’t much of a reader until 2009 but is now making up for lost time by working his way through the 1001 books to read before you die list. He’s making far better progress than I am with my projects
  • Novel Readings Rohan’s reviews are always insightful and I love reading about the university courses she teaches. Plus she shares my love of Middlemarch
  • Seeing the World Through Books Mary inspired her students to see the world outside their own locality when she was teaching English at Massachusetts college. Her blog is a rich resource of  world literature books
  • Tony’s Book World: another lover of world literature
  • Nataallh: a writer from Gaza City who gives us an insight into life in this besieged city
  • ArabicLiterature: M.Lynx is a writer based in Cairo who blogs every day about literature in English from the Arabic world.
  • BookRhapsody: Angus was one of the first bloggers I ‘met’ and loved reading his reports about his book club in the Phillipines.
  • The Literary Bunny: Christina had a break from the blog for a while but is back. I enjoy following her stories of about the books that her family buy for her as surprise gifts.
  • StillUnfinishedBryan has a refreshingly honest take on life and books
  • 101books Robert’s journey through Time Magazine’s list of greatest English language novels since 1923
  • Some of the bloggers who inspired me and gave me practical as well as moral support when I took my first steps with this site are sadly not as active as they were. But I’m going to nominate them anyway in the hope it rekindles their interest.
    • Laura of Musings: a wonderful guide in my journey through Booker prize winning novels
    • Alex in Leeds her idea of the book jar has inspired so many people (just look up the term on You Tube if you want proof)

Armchair BEA: 10 resources for creating blog posts

book heart armchairbeaToday’s Armchair BEA topic is a free choice selection. Since I’ve spent so much of my time this week writing posts for BEA, I thought I’d pass on some resources that I’ve found a great help when creating blog content.

First of all, finding the right word

Obviously you need a good dictionary like the Collins English Thesaurus so you can check you are using the correct spelling in your post. Although most word processing software programs these days come with automatic spellcheck you can’t always rely on them for accuracy. I do like to look up words myself.  But there are many other  tools. Here are 5 recommendations:
1. Plain English Campaign Guides

The Plain English Campaign is an organisation I admire enormously for their work in getting government departments, insurance companies and travel firms to simplify their official documents.  The site gives you the basics on how to write plain English. The tool I find particularly helpful is the A-Z of Alternative Words – this will help you avoid writing that can be complex.  Look up ‘acquire’ and it tells you the better word is ‘get’ or ‘buy’ as an example.

2. The Visual Thesaurus 
This is a good resource for people who like to think in visual terms. It’s both a dictionary and a thesaurus. You type in a word and the tool creates word maps based on that entry. The maps branch out to related words. Although use of Visual Thesaurus requires you to take out a subscription, there is a free trial version.

3WordHippo

This is more of an unusual tool. It’s really useful when you are struggling to find the right tense or when you are trying to avoid repeating the same word too much in a sentence. It enables you to search for words under different categories; for example you can search by “singular for “adverb for,” “past tense of” and you can also get help on how to pronounce your chosen word.

4. Idioms at The Free Dictionary

This one is good if you want to use headlines that involve a play on words. You put in a word and the tool gives you a list of common phrases in which the word appears.

5. Thsrs (The Shorter Thesaurus)

If you are making a conscious effort to shorten the way you write (Plain English Campaign guideline is to aim for sentences of around 20 words), this is the tool for you. In The Shorter Thesaurus you enter a long word and get a list of shorter synonyms. Would be useful for Twitter users also.

Finding the right image

We all know what a difference a good image can make to a blog post. It’s not always easy to find the right one and stay legal at the same time. Here are some resources that can help you say within the law.

But first let’s touch on the thorny question of when it is ok to use an image you find on the web.

Often when you go to a site it will tell you that an image is free to use. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to use the image however – you need to make sure you understand the terms and conditions. For example, some images will be labelled in Google as Labeled for reuse which means the license allows you to copy and/or modify the image in specific ways. If you’re blog is not generating income, then that will generally be sufficient for your needs but if you are getting an income stream from your blog you need to look for Labeled for commercial reuse images instead and follow those terms and conditions.

1. Google Images

This is where most of us start off when we are looking for an image.  Not all the images you see here are ones that you can use without breaking copyright law. You need to refine your search so that you only look for ” free images”  using the small gear icon on the right side of the screen. Then select “Advanced Search.” and the correct image use type from the blue sign that says “Usage Rights.” You do need to know what image use types exist.

2. Flickr Creative Commons

There are thousands of images on this site. Again you need to make sure you are using only those which are designated as ‘creative commons’ usage. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons” box in the Advanced Search page.

3. PhotoPin

This could be a quicker way to find Creative Commons images since it finds images with all the attribution details and license info.

4. FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A rich source of good images. Those which are free tend to be smaller in size but that should be ok for a blog. If you need anything bigger, you pay for them.

 5. You

Yes, believe it or not, you are a source for images. All you need is a digital camera and a tiny bit of technical know how to upload the image onto your computer.  Instead of grabbing an image of a jacket cover from Google (which could get you into trouble) why not take your own photo of the book – maybe put it in the place where you do your reading to make it more distinctive than everyone else’s photo of that book cover. This is something I’m going to be trying out myself starting this weekend.  I’m also going to be looking for a low cost graphic design package so I can create my own images. The last thing I want is a solicitor’s letter dropping through my letter box alleging I have stolen someone else’s intellectual property.

Sunday Salon: Frustrated with false friends

sundaysalonNo matter how many years you’ve spent on this planet, no matter what gender you are or which country you hail from there is one thing I bet we all have in common: we all love to receive compliments.  Remember how you felt when your teacher singled you out in class for something you’d done particularly well? You might get that same warm glow of satisfaction and pride now when you get a promotion in work or just a verbal ‘well done’. Or when someone comments about the dress you’re wearing or your new hairstyle. Or you get a positive reaction to a blog post you’ve spent hours crafting.

You are so intelligent,” read one recent comment posted on a review I published last year. “I’ve been surfing on-line for more than 3 hours but haven’t seen anything as interesting as your article,” said another. “If all web masters and bloggers made content like yours the internet would be a better place,” said a third.

Now I flatter myself that I can string a few words together to create some semblance of order but I doubt that I’m anywhere as good as these comments would suggest. They’re just too effusive to be genuine.

And of course they are far from genuine. They are in fact false friends, otherwise known in the lingo of digital media, as spam.

I’ve experienced these kinds of comments ever since I started BookerTalk more than two years ago. Just one or two a day to begin with, then it started creeping up and just lately the number has exploded. Even though the WordPress spam filter tool catches most of them, some creep through and no matter how many times I report them or try to block them permanently, they keep coming back.

Some of them are so obviously spam that they easy to detect. They’re the ones that contain gibberish, usually in multiple languages and written at great length.  Like the one that contained this gem of gobbledygook:

You know thus significantly relating to this matter, produced me personally believe it from so many various angles.

Thank you for sharing that wisdom with me lili-marlene-doortmund, or whoever you really are, it made my day complete in so many ways.  But may not as much as this tremendous comment from Dark Souls:

Just desire to say your article is as surprising.
The clearness on your post is just cool and i can suppose you are a professional on this subject.
Well with your permission let me to clutch your feed
to keep up to date with imminent post. Thank you one million and please continue the enjoyable work.

I’m not quite sure how one ‘clutches a post’ but it sounds a bit painful.

Then there are those where you can tell just from the name, that they are not genuine I’m pretty certain that Michael Kors is rather too busy running his fashion empire to read my review of an African author’s latest work let alone leave a comment saying how wonderful it was.  Yet every day, and sometimes multiple times a day, I get an email in his name.  I’ve picked up two more great buddies also in the shape of Tree Removal Galston West and Buffalo Linkstation Is430d who send me comments every week even though I have yet to write about tree surgery or link stations (actually I don’t even know what a link station is).

I’ve read enough warning about opening mail from strangers to know that the last thing you should do is click on any of the links in these comments or respond. The spammers know this so they seem to have changed tactic in the last few months and instead of simply posting compliments, they are now asking for help.

So I get plenty of comments now asking me what spam filters I use and can I recommend a good plug-in to deal with them (thanks for the question Thad Pitcher but the fact your gravatar is called Giuseppe Zanotti Sneakers doesn’t suggest that you and I have much in common).  Then are the ones who say they are having problems finding my contact page so would I send them my email because they have some recommendations for me – nice try Janie Russell of auto detailing chandler NZ but I live in Wales, United Kingdom so it’s a hell of a long way for me to travel to buy my next car. Unless of course you’re offering to pay my air ticket?  No, somehow I think not.

And so it goes on day after day. I imagine most of the comments are written by people in one of the poor regions of the world where they get paid peanuts to splurge this garbage. It may be the only kind of job they can get and it might mean they can afford to put food on the table for the family. I feel rather mean making fun of them if they are in that predicament. Maybe that’s just an idealised notion of mine and really these things are simply written by people who have absolutely nothing better to do with their lives than to annoy others.

In which camp do you think they fall? Do you have similar problems with spammers and if so, how do you deal with them??

 

 

Review: The Bloggers Survival Guide

BloggersguideAny book that purports to be a “How to xxxxx” guide is going to be a tough one for an author to get right.

If they assume some readers have absolutely zero knowledge of the subject then the temptation will be to start  with a very basic level of instruction or explanation. But that risks frustrating readers who already know the basics. Progress too quickly beyond the basics in order to satisfy these more advanced readers, and it’s the beginners who end up frustrated.

When the subject is one that’s changing as quickly as blogging, the challenge gets even harder. For by the time you get into print, those social media sites you highlighted may no longer exist or may have changed their features or rules, thus making your carefully crafted tips somewhat redundant. A book like The Bloggers Survival Guide by Lexi Lane and Becky McNeer is consequently going to have a relatively short shelf life.

This book is subtitled Tips & Tricks for Parent Bloggers,Wordsmiths and Enthusiasts. Not only doesn’t this exactly trip off the tongue, it also doesn’t represent the contents very well. There is actually little in here which speaks to people who want to write blogs specifically about parenting or childcare so it’s baffling why the authors elected for such a precise title.

What you get instead is a step by step guide for anyone who wants to set up a blog of any description. The early chapters deal with the basics like choosing a blog platform and a name, organising the content effectively and then progress onto the more advanced techniques of search engine optimisation, using social media to promote your blog and finally into the arena of how to turn your blog into a money-making venture.

The quality of the content is patchy however. You won’t find much discussion on the thorny question of choosing the right topic area upon which to focus the blog, or how to generate quality articles/posts — these topics are dealt with very sketchily as if the authors assume you have already know how to do this. It didn’t give me a lot of confidence to see in chapter one a comment to the effect that the authors wouldn’t cover  many of the aspects of setting up a blog using WordPress because the WordPress tutorials themselves were excellent. Rather an own goal I fear.

Fortunately they redeem this defect with some more substantive information and guidance later in the book, plenty of practical suggestions and good references to other sources of information. If you want a flavour of the value this book can bring, I captured 5 top tips to improve a blogsite in a recent post.  Bear in mind as you dip into it, that the frame of reference is very much a North American one (the chapter on legal issues, while good, doesn’t mention any European directives for example) and there is no reference to blogging practices in countries where there are more restrictions on social media.

In short this isn’t a perfect instruction manual by any means but if will certainly help people to get up and running and will also help more experienced people who want to learn how to make their blog sparkle.

Endnote

The Bloggers Survival Guide is published in paperback form by Wayman Publishing (2013). My copy was provided by the publishers via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

What kind of heroine are you?

If you were the heroine of a book what genre would it be? What book would you like to be on the cover of?

Those were the tough questions posed by the three  literature aficianados over at Pages Unbound who allowed  me to take up valuable real estate on their blog site today for their blogger interviews feature. It’s a bit of a shock to open a web page to find yourself staring back at you. Even more of a surprise to realise I’d said so much – I hadn’t realised I was wittering on at such length in reply to the challenging questions they posed.

If you want to know the answers to the questions above, and many more, step over to  Pages Unbound and look at the interview.

When you’re tired of my ramblings, there are many other interesting features to explore including some personality quizzes, author interviews and – of course – some book reviews.

Thanks  to Briana, Krysta and Nora for giving me the chance to do the interview…..

 

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