Reader Thoughts?

MIT Prof and UC stem cell bete noir Jim Sherley is starting a hunger strike today for the purpose of ending racism at MIT and advancing his hopeless case for tenure. One of these positions is more noble than the other. Anyone out there with some inside poop-scoop from MIT? We’re looking at a particular someone with our eye-spy.

UC adds from the Boston Globe online article:

Sherley quotes:

“How can we accept that we have so many well-trained people and so few are tenured?”

“What I have discussed here is that if you are African-American, part of a minority group, it is acceptable for you to have insufficient lab space … and it is allowable for your accomplishments to be ignored.”

The official email response from Chancellor Phillip Clay:

To MIT Students:

This morning, Professor James L. Sherley has begun a fast to express his disagreement with the decision not to promote him to tenure and with the outcome of his grievance process. Three reviews have concluded that the tenure process in his case was fair and proper and that there is no evidence that race influenced the process. The Provost has reviewed the history of the case in a recent letter to the faculty, which is available at .

We take seriously, and are gravely concerned by, Professor Sherley’s
intentions. While we have encouraged him to seek other means to express his views, the Institute will respect his right, as a member of our community, to publicly express his disagreement in a manner that does not disrupt the work of the Institute or put others in the community at risk.

I am writing to you for three reasons. First, I ask all of you to respect Professor Sherley’s right to disagree publicly, regardless of your own views about the case. I also ask you to respect each other’s views about the case. Respect for free expression is an important value in our community, and benefits all of us.

At the same time, I am aware that many members of our community do not
understand how the tenure process works. Over the next few days, we will provide a number of venues to discuss the tenure process and related matters. I invite those of you with concerns about the process to take advantage of these opportunities to take part in an important community dialogue.

Finally, I urge you to consider our community values. We are committed to creating and sustaining a community that is diverse in many important ways: in race and ethnicity, in gender, and in economic, cultural, and national backgrounds. While we have much to celebrate in these domains, we must continue to explore how we can do better and how we can maintain an environment in which we can all thrive and in which we can take pride. Your efforts to advance diversity, in your student communities and in your relationships, are important contributions to our community.

Thank you.


Phillip L. Clay

43 Responses to “Reader Thoughts?”

  • I for one am open to a presentation to convince me that I should take this man and his cause seriously. I can take his career and accomplishments seriously, but the chosen tactic (a hunger strike) is a desperate act… it is what a person with nothing might do to draw attention to their plight. Not ‘may-as-well-have-nothing’, but actively refusing the one remaining thing which sustains your life.

    .. and that’s a pretty important distinction.

    This smacks more of an unstable teenager threatening suicide because they don’t get to go to Lollapalooza.

    but, I can actually be convinced otherwise. Really, I rather want to be – I enjoy the romantic notion that academics are slightly more grown up than the rest of us – and I also enjoy the romantic notion that the skin color of a person has nothing to do with their being a ‘whiny-ass-titty-baby’, or not.

    Which is how it looks from here. Convince me, I am the cynical public.

  • Not knowing a thing beyond the details in the article, I shouldn’t opine, but I will anyway. On the one hand, being a member of a minority group probably does make it harder to do some of the networking that leads to the grants, publications, speaking opportunities, and other things that result in tenure. ON the other hand, I’d be surprised if an institution like MIT didn’t make an extraordinary effort to support a tenure-track, African-American science professor. I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around. A hunger strike, though? Don’t know what that’s supposed to accomplish.

  • First, Tonegawa with abuse of power, and now Sherley with … abuse of powerlessness? What’s up with MIT?

    I don’t think these circumstances add up to “equal opportunity”.

    Am I missing something here?

  • Go here:

    Type “Sherley JL”

    Realize most articles are reviews. He does not publish enough or high enough profile work to justify tenure at MIT. It does not seem close. This is in addition to his prickly personality. I will add that none of this absolves MIT of racism, however, the case is difficult as the purported racism would have precluded his ability to pass the MIT standard for tenure, so his argument can’t simultaneously be “I’m qualified and I would have been even MORE qualified”, it can only be “I would have been qualified” and since this is quite difficult to prove, he will not be able to prove his case. MIT may have a lot of cobags, but they have attempted to do some due diligence in response to these matters. We’ll have to see. He does not seem to be well loved so it will be an uphill battle, and I will have to say that his hunger strike does not seem to really be about racism at MIT in general, moreso just his specific case. It makes it hard to see how this stunt is not just self-serving wankery.

    If there is racism at MIT it deserves to have the harsh light of day all over its ass.

  • Thanks, UC for the quotes. I think that is a really good letter by the Chancellor.

  • well, I suppose I’ll avoid the name-calling, at the Chancellors reasonable request.

  • Pinko:

    Thanks, for clarifying some of the details of the process.

    If your comment was intended as a response to mine, then I guess I was unclear. I was more or less agreeing with mdhatter that a hunger strike seems, on first scrutiny, a bizarre misappropriation of a tactic generally used for far more directly repressive situations. Making an example of oneself for being refused tenure seems like a far cry from doing so for e.g. being unjustly imprisoned.

    I imagine there are good arguments that could be made that a dramatic action to bring attention to the racial disparities that endure in academic hiring would be meaningful, but a situation like Sherley’s where, even if racial discrimination was a factor, it is difficult to see how it could have been decisive given Sherley’s record seems … oh, let’s say: strategically unsound.

    Is he trying to make Alla Karpova’s head explode?

    There’s something strange going on here. If he wants to bring attention to some real racial issue at MIT, then demanding tenure for himself seems like a messed up way to go about it. In order to prove a case of discrimination, he would have to make an even stronger case for his science than would have been necessary to get tenure in the first place, no? And if he believes that’s possible then isn’t this really about those warm, breathing blastocysts with great personalities he was on about? Now my head hurts.

    Anyway, there are a fairly miniscule number of situations that I think could be described as “abuse of powerlessness”, but Sherley’s right on the edge there.

  • No, p, you are right on, I couldn’t really put into words how weird this seems and how inconsistent the actions are, but thankfully, you just did.

    One usual sees hunger strikes in situations where the hands of the individual are so tied that nothing else really seems possible (individuals imprisoned) or to underline the fact that the issue at hand is a life and death situation for the person protesting or the person protesting is a proxy for someone else in such a situation.

    The fact that this tactic is used in response to a decision that is possibly the least likely affected by racism, consistent with Sherley’s argument that it was prior institutional actions that resulted in his inability to mount a successful campaign for tenure, and that the campaign being mounted in response to said decision and not in response to prior actions renders it deeply cynical in appearance.

  • He had to know he was a weak candidate at best, and if he feels he was weaker because he didn’t get institutional support (lab space, apparently??) from faculty in the past, whose responsibble today that he did not choose to seek another path, affiliation with another more supportive institution, at any time in the past?

  • So, uh, this means there’s some food in his fridge going bad, right? And uh, that that shouldn’t go to waste and all…

    Where does this guy live?

  • RB, what is really sad about this is that that food will most likely be eaten by his wife and kids, whom it seems like he is telling to “eat it” in a more than literal sense.

  • The hunger strike “will seem rash to those who don’t know me well, but it is not,”

    Well, he thinks they know he’ll pull a hunger strike instead of, you know, see a lawyer or apply somewhere else or something. Maybe they have a hefty stock of food built up already for some other calamity.

  • If he’s not “rash” how do we square his deep thoughtfulness with the fact that non of this makes any sense based on his stated objectives? The provost could resign out of regard for his misguided gamesmanship and his health, and MIT could turn around and say they will not revisit the tenure matter. In this case, nothing would be accomplished save for personal revenge. Does he stop eating again after something like that?

  • Thinking about this I keep getting images of the nuts with the tape on their mouths outside the clinic where Terri Schiavo was. Is someone whispering in Sherley’s ear? Or is his fanaticism, if there is such, his own?

    That this will “will seem rash to those who don’t know me well, but it is not”, sounds like it could be the rationalization of someone who has been convinced to do something they are not quite sure of. Is someone setting him up as a martyr for blastocysts?

    The quote continues: “I hope that people will realize that my [letter] said ‘Help me end racism at MIT,’ and not ‘Help me get tenure at MIT.’ My motivation for this protest is not the fact that I have been denied an opportunity for tenure. It is because of the reason that I have been denied this opportunity ….What I do now is not a rash reaction to disappointment, it is a well-reasoned self-sacrifice for change.” Effectively holding himself hostage with the demand he be granted tenure doesn’t appear to “end racism at MIT”, it appears to try to get James Sherley a job by extortion. If he really wants to see hiring reformed at MIT, he should want whatever he believes went wrong in the tenure process exposed, and the process reformed. He should be seeking that the process be made fair. He should be demanding his own case be treated fairly. But he can’t presume that fair treatment would change the result for him personally.

    From what UC said in his earlier post, it doesn’t sound like the guy is necessarily even a bad scientist as such, just one who lets other agendas get in the way. Is he even known for speaking out on racial issues? Or does this come out of the blue?

    Even if there is in fact a distinctly definable race problem at MIT separable from usual issues of academic infighting — which is always possible — and that problem has materially affected Sherley, this seems like such a bad way to make that point that it seems hard to believe that’s what is motivating him. It seems more like the kind of thing one does when one is frustrated that one’s colleagues don’t want to “know the embryos better”. Or perhaps someone who thinks about embryos that way is just likely to have impaired judgement when it comes to dealing with concrete grievances too.

  • p- he is known for being controversial and dogmatic about his stance on adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells. It appears to be the contrarian disease, the further he gets into his own megalomania about his adult stem cell issues, the worse his persecution complex gets. His views on adult stem cells are partially tainted by his religiously flavored views on embryonic stem cells. This goes against the grain, and thus he has ruffled feathers.

    I don’t think UC even thinks he’s that good of a scientist. One problem with tenure is that institutions do like people who will appear to be good colleagues, or at least this can be a factor in a marginal decision. Given candidates with identical marginal resumes do you pick the dogmatic a-hole, or the non-boat rocker?

  • From what UC said, it just sounded like he wasn’t self-discrediting on purely scientific grounds, that his ideas were at least plausible. It sounds like he wasn’t exploring them particularly effectively (his technique was technologically unsophisticated) but didn’t say anything about why that was happening.

    I suppose in principle, you should choose the dogmatic a-hole if they are actually right all the time and they’re just obnoxious about it. In practice, most people probably judge what they really want to deal with. But nothing I’ve heard about Sherley indicates that he’s the kind of obnoxious person who’s worth putting up with.

  • The Uncanny Canadian

    If it were to be fair to damn someone very very hungry by the faintest of praise, I can summarize my opinion of his science thus: His ideas are plausible, even attractive, and his approach is rudimentary and uninspiring at best. In fact, Amar Klar has made far greater advancements in the field than Sherley has. One of the ironies of it all is that Amar Klar has been unafraid to use embryonic stem cells to test some of his controversial hypotheses, whereas Sherley has stuck to a largely discredited cell culture model.

    Nobody seems to want to tackle his scientific record. Even the Chomsky letter does everything it can to avoid having to evaluate his scientific merit. Pinko and myself know plenty of highly qualified faculty, many of them women, that are denied tenure. It’s one of the most rigorous, political, and ruthless processes out there in academia. It would take a scientist with an extraordinary publication record and a very popular one at that to take on a tenure decision. Sherley is making a mockery of a conceivably real problem and in doing so making himself and his allies look really really peurile. Perhaps when pigs fly, right Sherley?

  • It’s definitely a foolish move on his part, and he’s sabotaging his career in the process. He probably could have parlayed this into a good tenure-track position at a decent institution, but now he looks like a whacko.

    While there are still plenty of -isms polluting academia, I think snag is right: for a scientist who is an active researcher and publishing, minority status will likely be seen as a plus. I don’t mean that insincerely, either — I think many academic departments genuinely want to diversify their faculty.

    Reading the article and these comments, it seems like Sherley has not produced the academic output required for tenure at a place like MIT, and he’s also probably failed the wild-card “collegiality” factor.

  • Students do love him and he takes mentoring and teaching seriously, or seems so based on responses.

  • Just because the university wants to boost its minority #s and will encourage departments to recruit and retain minority candidates via using certain strategies such as providing institutional supports like mentoring, technology transfer offices (in the case of sci&eng schools like MIT) does not mean that the road is necessarily a downhill coast for minorities (to overstate the claims in the conversation thread above). It is the insidiousness of institutional and cognitive biases among one’s peers that makes minority retention so difficult. The theory of homophily states – crudely put – that like attracts like, “birds of a feather.” Mentoring and role modeling research shows that homophilous pairs (e.g., same gender, same race, etc.) have mre successful relationships. So the rough picture is that Sherley has greater difficulty building and bridging the informal networks of the predominant white male scientist model (and culture) that has presented such a barrier to generations of women and racial minorities. This leads to weaker and more abridged formal networks, because he’s having fewer of the impromptu, in-the-hall chats with his peers, for instance, that are integral to forming research partnerships, etc. This leads to more isolation and quite possibly lower productivity, as he has fewer chances to go in on pots of research funds, greater barriers to accessing research opportunities, etc. This leads to lower justification for bigger lab space, fewer publications (given fewer co-authors), and an overall less impressive scientific record and fewer collegial relationships that prove crucial in the very political tenure process. Teaching and mentoring of students, sadly, matters far less than research productivity, and as one of you point (I’ve checked myself), his publication record is quite dismal compared to his peers.

    I’ve done extensive research on gender inequities in science and the academy, and the rough outline I just gave is based on the literature and my own interviews of male and female scientists.

    The sad thing about the Sherley case – as you all point out – is the desperation, the fight for himself v. a larger cause (no matter how he tries to spin it) – and the obscuring of what is likely not an impressive research record to his peers (though again, this is our inference and possible up for debate). Nonetheless, I think the Institute has an issue on its hands that they need to deal with asap.

  • Thank you, Leigh, for that great comment.

    Societal issues must be faced head on in terms of understanding the problems in play, the only issue is how to apply our knowledge of the problems to specific decisions. It seems to me that there is a general feeling that the situation can only be improved for future candidates and that Dr. Sherley’s case, notwithstaning many issues specific to the case but unrelated to race (the stem cell issue, which can be viewed at the intersection of science and religion), is hopeless.

    It is a tragedy unfolding on many levels, only some of which are probably understood by any one party to this debate.

  • Yeah, Leigh, great comment.

    I didn’t mean to imply that minority candidates have it easy in higher ed. They run into the same bias — often hidden below the surface — that exist in other industries. It’s just, from the casual reading of this case, there didn’t seem to be a lot that screamed racism here.

    The real shame here is that something like this, which may turn into a circus, can really harm the effort to curb discrimination in higher education. Someone claiming discrimination may be seen as having sour grapes when they have a real case.

    Hopefully, MIT is sincere about making this transparent and discussing its tenure process frankly.

  • I think some people did a hunger strike to save the ethnic studies department at Berkeley a few years ago.

    I think that hunger strikes are more appropriate for more basic human rights issues. I’m not judging people who do it, just that it seems like it should be for something really worth dying for. But I guess that is my judgement about what is worth dying for.

    I hear tell there is a woman at Boalt who took the plunge and had a baby before she obtained tenure. Apparently no one has ever done this before. No woman, anyway.

  • a sad thing is that many involved in higher ed have this false inner belief that things should be better because somehow people will be more rational, yet it does not seem the case.

    Brando, it would be odd for a case like this to “scream” racism, everything would be more subtle and under the surface. Also, there could be massive racism, but this would not be obviously apparent if there were other aspects of the application to argue about, such as scientific qualifications or productivity (which of course can be affected by racism, but then there is a distinction to be made on whether the racism is primarily affecting the decision or that racism has primarily affected the career of Dr. Sherley- of the former, then arguments can be made about the application itself, if the latter, then it becomes much harder).

  • I was thinking it would seem like racism could be a culprit if Sherley’s publication/research record was more robust. If, in other words, he appeared to have the traditional requirements of tenure, but was denied. Or if a candidate with a questionable record who was white was hired instead. Instead — and again, just commenting as a casual observer — this seems more like the denial of tenure to someone who just happens to not be white.

    Regardless, the hunger strike just seems like a poor way to deal with it. The tactic doesn’t fit the issue, for reasons Kathleen said so well.

    I think this is the longest I have ever gone in a comment thread without making a joke.

  • I should get tenure at MIT — The Massachussetts Institute of Tehl4m3ry!!!

  • B- looks like teh l4m3 just broke the seal. The pentagon just flushed 500 billion down the toilet on ways to contain teh l4m3 with serious pants. It is just a flawed system

  • Putting serious pants on a pig is like teaching teh l4m3 to sing.

    That doesn’t look right. Um…

    Teaching serious pants to sing is like putting teh l4m3 on a pig.


    Teaching a pig to be teh l4m3 is like singing for your serious pants.



    Serious pants just aren’t safe these days.

    No pigs were harmed in the creation of this comment.

  • It’s interesting that Sherley’s reputation seems different among students and colleagues. A substantial number of students do seem to have found him to be an excellent teacher and mentor, while colleagues have apparently found him “prickly”. I wonder how much this might have to do with the issues that Leigh raised above (great comment, btw, Leigh, thanks). Is he necessarily as difficult as some others at MIT have found him, or is that a function of those homophilous relationships?

    But one problem is that Sherley goes beyond deriving the impetus for his work from a moral standpoint that is unpopular among his peers. His public statements don’t just provide a different perspective on his field, but actively misrepresent parts of it.

    An example of Sherley’s moral standpoint (from his June 2006 op-ed):

    The provost and board members had better get ready to answer to their decision to vacate their responsibility to protect and safeguard the life and health of human research subjects.

    In this quote, the “human research subjects” are embryos or blastocysts. This may not be a popular position among scientists, but it’s not inherently dishonest or a misrepresentation. On the other hand, there’s this (from the same op-ed):

    In particular, there is more awareness that embryonic stem cells, whether derived from natural human embryos or cloned ones, cannot be used to treat diseases in adults or children.

    One can make a legalistic reading of the preceding where it signifies that more of the public is now aware that no embryonic stem cell treatments suitable for humans have been developed yet. However, that is not the plain meaning of the sentence, which is more along the lines of a sentence like “There is more awareness that evolution is a flawed and untenable theory.”

    I also found the following (on an anti-abortion site):

    “Despite the confusion that some like to create on the questions of ‘are embryos human beings?’ and ‘when does a human life begin?’, both scientists and physicians know very well that human embryos are alive and human,” [Sherley] emphasized. “A human life begins when a diploid complement of human DNA is initiated to begin human development. Therefore, a life can be initiated by the fusion of sperm and egg or by the introduction of a diploid nucleus into an enucleated egg (ie, ‘cloning’).”

    This kind of statement disingenuously confuses empirical questions with problems of definition. It is empirically true that a newly fertilized human egg cell is “alive” in the sense that it has metabolic functions that are active, and it is “human” in that it is a cell derived from H. sapiens, but the question of what a “human life” is for moral purposes is not exhausted by those empirical points.

    And then there’s a quote like this (from the op-ed):

    A favorite hypothetical example used by would-be Harvard cloners to support the research is what a person would do if confronted with a child in a burning in-vitro fertilization clinic. Their position is that only the child would be rescued, and the embryos left behind to perish. However, that view is based on ill-informed persons like members of Harvard’s board. A better-informed person would look for a way to rescue the child and the embryos.

    This is a complete misrepresentation of this dilemma, which asks if you can only save either one child or a petri dish with several blastocysts, which do you choose? It says nothing about whether anyone would want to or try to save both.

    Scientists with uncommon perspectives can obviously be a boon to a field in many ways. However, how should the line be drawn between academic freedom and misrepresentation of a field?

  • This is a complete misrepresentation of this dilemma, which is asks if you can only save either one child or a petri dish with several blastocysts, which do you choose?

    Obviously you’d choose the child, because if the blastocysts all burn up, that’s like, a bunch of kids all going to heaven instead of just one.

  • Thanks for finding me, 3 Bulls. I’ve been digging around further on his embryonic stem cell position, and certainly this is the reason MIT wishes he would go away. I need to include an addendum to my post on equity in tenure, given that it is increasingly irrelevant as we get to the heart of the matter in this issue.

    This is a much more interesting case than trying to play the race card (I’m not usually so crude, but Sherley made me do it!), and it’s fascinating that neither Sherley nor MIT has raised this angle in their internal communications to the campus.

    Less of a nightmare facing the Institute, now that I can see that his scientific community believed he was a crackpot to begin with.

  • Leigh,

    I want to be fair to him and second plover’s feelings about him being an highly respected mentor to students and a collegial member of the faculty in relation to interactions with grad students and undergraduates. I have heard this and seen it discussed by several sources.

    I do think the fundamental problem is possibly the direction and scope of his research and his interactions within his field as relates to his stance on stem cells. In regards to tenure, most universities are incredibly tight lipped about the scientific discussions that underlie the tenure decision, so it is highly unlikely MIT would comment on any aspect whatsoever.

    I do not think that “crackpot” is quite the right word for Prof. Sherley, but his stance on stem cells and conception is dogmatic, which is his right. I just think that it makes it impossible to know when his scientific opinions concerning adult stem cells are clouded by his beliefs. None of us are machines able to be completely consistent in our stances.

    I do not share his beliefs nor view his hunger strike as an entirely legitimate enterprise based on his own assertions for its goals, but I do find I have a great amount of respect for how he is purported to interact with his junior colleagues. He may be misguided, but he does not appear to be unprincipled.

  • Way back when, early 70’s, Dick Gregory – a comedian – went on hunger strikes to protest racism in war.

    Bill Cosby, another comedian (less known at the time), apparently used to cover Dick Gregory’s shows at the last minute… and would send Dick Gregory the money so Dick Gregory’s children could eat under a roof – and to let him know he had his back.

    So, the question from plover does have some merit… who has this guy’s back?

  • “that’s like, a bunch of kids all going to heaven instead of just one.”

    They’re going to limbo unless you’re growing them in Holy Agar™

  • UC told me about this the other night before we both left for sunshine states. To which I replied, “Is he 5?”

    MIT’s newspaper reporting on this is worth the full read.

    Marita, Marita? Can we get some thoughts?

    It’s worth going to the Google and typing it “James Sherley and sucks”. Beyond UC’s last post, you’ll find some other bloggers who understand this issue as well.

  • A few comments which will fail to enlighten and in general, be content free:

    1) Sherley deciding to go on a hunger strike was probably win/win in his mind. He definitely needed to lose a few pounds anyway and maybe he could leverage it into a tenure gig at one of the top research universities in the country. Why not try? (who needs credibility?)

    2) While there is no way to avoid bias and politics when it comes to issues arising in academia, historically, MIT actually has done a pretty honest and earnest effort in dealing with major issues that arise. The controversies that arose over women faculty and the amount of salary/resources they received is an excellent example of this. When confronted with the discrepancy (with supporting proof), then president Vest said, “your right” and fixed it. So I will say here something that I almost never say: I trust that the establishment (who holds all the power in this situation) is trying to be fair in this situation. This is in direct contrast to another local university that shall remain nameless (*cough* HARVARD*cough*).

    3) I have attended meetings where Sherley was also present and I witnessed once where he took the opportunity during the question-answer period (of someone else’s talk) to opine on the philosophical issues of embryonic stem cells. There was much eye-rolling and “oh god”-ing. This might be why the term “prickly” popped up. While he was perfectly free to express his opinions, directly threatening the ability of other scientists to perform their experiments in a vocal and confrontational manner is undoubtedly not a wise career path for the untenured, be you black, white, or blue-footed. (showing your boobies might get you a gig in Hollywood however).

    4) A hunger strike over a job is shallow, petty, and unserious. Is he really willing to starve himself to death over this position? My guess is no, although admittedly that is only a guess. If not, he should just step aside now and hide his face in shame. Hunger strikes are for matters of life and death. Anything less is trifling, and can only succeed in embarrassing Sherley.

  • Marita, Marita? Can we get some thoughts?

    Marita is feeling like Switzerland. Marita has no thoughts other than that several of the parties involved have always treated her very well, and the whole situation makes her very sad.

  • Teaching serious pants to sing is like putting teh l4m3 on a pig.

    I have done that before, you know.

  • you and your l1br4r14n fr1end5….

  • teh l4m3
    Feb 7th, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Teaching serious pants to sing is like putting teh l4m3 on a pig.

    I have done that before, you know.

    I prefer to sing serious pigs while teaching tehl4m3 to put on pants.

  • teaching tehl4m3 to put on pants

    Does that work?

    I didn’t know anyone had tried.

  • Serious pants have semi-serious thoughts. The whole affair looks like something to steer clear of. First of all, I have to assume that lab space for Sherley was committed to in his offer letter. Then also, since the slot seems to have been offered up by the Provost at the time, there had to be commitments from the Department and the Provost. Couple this all to the fact that Sherley was no freshout and …..

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