Elon Musk

Elon Musk has achieved success across multiple industries, with Tesla Motors, Solar City and SpaceX all under his leadership. A new biography by Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance digs into the stories behind Musk’s success, the CEO’s desire to colonize Mars and the respect and fear his employees reportedly have for him. Vance joins us to talk about his book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.”

The Story of Elon Musk and His ‘Quest for a Fantastic Future’ 1 June,2015forum

Guests:
Ashlee Vance, technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future"

  • Another Mike

    My first reaction when I hear “Elon Musk” is still that they’re speaking about some after-shave.

  • ES Trader

    Let’s face it, as much as Steve Jobs is NOW revered by everyone, including myself, the impact that Elon Musk will likely have on civilization will over shadow my iPhone6, iPad and Mac like Everest does to Mt Tamalpais

    Musk is not alone in warning of A.I., Bill Gates among others.

    • Robert Thomas

      Both are admirable. I revere neither.

      I sort of revere Reynold Johnson and Jean Hoerni.

  • Robert Thomas

    This is hagiography, happening right in front of us.

    Elon Musk is an odd duck with plenty of vision and is involved with interesting, high-profile ventures.

    He has no engineering degree. He has a B.S in economics and a B.S. in physics. There are plenty of excellent self-taught engineers but PayPal and Musk’s other foundational activities are financial service companies and sales and marketing operations; he seems to have a lot of interest in engineering but I don’t see evidence that he ever did it for a living.

    Journalists are fond of tossing “genius” around. Viz: any edition of TMZ on TV.

    Vance: “Yeah, you’re tight.”

    • ES Trader

      Bone up on his biography before jumping to conclusions

      • Robert Thomas

        I don’t jump to conclusions.

    • Sean Dennehy

      I don’t know what you know about physics, but as someone with a physics degree, we are well prepared when it comes to engineering and math.

      • Robert Thomas

        When I put on clothes, I’m prepared to go to the store.

        I’ve never heard of or met a physicist who didn’t consider themselves prepared to do everything.

        Science and engineering are distinct pursuits and require distinct skills.

        • Another Mike

          Because a PhD is the entry level degree for a physics career, many bachelors in physics have to make a living as best they can. One of my classmates works in IT.

          • Robert Thomas

            When I was in high school, I got to meet Burton Richter, right around the time of J/Ψ. I was spellbound. I devoured Weyl’s The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics (1931; 1950, Dover). Then I calculated that I was going to have to pay my own rent. C’est la vie.

    • Whamadoodle

      Seems a knee-jerk reaction on your part: “OMG something’s celebrated! It must be bad!” If the author has interviewed several hundred of Musk’s fellow engineers, and found that they respected his engineering acumen well enough, then are you sure your criticism is well-founded?

      • Robert Thomas

        I didn’t mean to suggest that Musk isn’t educated or isn’t very bright. Obviously, he is. On the other hand, I’m not sure that a journalist’s talking to “hundreds of [people]” who either work for Musk or are doing business (or seeking to do business) with Musk and then reporting their awe is particularly revealing. I haven’t read Mr Vance’s book.

        • Whamadoodle

          Yes, but are you certain that he interviewed no people who were EX-employees of Elon Musk? Indeed, it would surprise me if he hadn’t, after interviewing hundreds of people. It’s not impossible that it is a hagiography, but I would certainly advise reading the book before assuming that there are hordes of critical ex-coworkers of his, who would pooh-pooh his engineering input, yet whose voices were stifled.

          • Robert Thomas

            I know only what I heard in the interview, that I haven’t already forgotten.

            What is “engineering input”? Is it like the stitching on the Tesla sun visors?

          • Whamadoodle

            It means *suggestions as to how to engineer*

            As far as further details, I suppose that’s another of those things for which that pesky “actually reading the book” is required.

          • Robert Thomas

            Is there money in that?!

            If so, I’ve got a lot of suggestions for Microsoft about Word and for Apple about their crummy “Finder” program.

            Look, The weirdness here isn’t that I can’t predict that readers – of whom I’m sure there are very few – of my comments here will interpret my tone to be unfairly dismissive of Musk when in fact I think his achievements are very admirable…

            The weirdness is the way in which the ventures of a man with astronomical resources gained from unrelated commerce is treated in the popular press as exceptional when compared, say, with a Bob Truax, who unlike Musk could never afford to take the financial or technological risks Musk has taken.

            I admit to a peculiar prejudice. The term paper I wrote for my high school physics class was on the subject of magnetic levitation vehicles. The physics, engineering and economics of maglev has fascinated me for several decades. At a talk he gave at U.C. Santa Cruz (when I was young – I can’t precisely recall), I was pleased to meet the late Henry Kolm of M.I.T. Frances Bitter Magnet Laboratory – a highlight of my youth. When I first heard about Musk’s interest in the relatively exotic “hyperloop” concept I was intrigued. Could it compete with more conventional Asian efforts? I have a fondness for beautiful, forlorn engineering.

            Then, I read more about it. Gah.

            There’s no question, having huge resources and being able to weather all sorts of failure (one rarely trumpets one’s own failures) is a big advantage in high-profile technological pursuits.

          • Whamadoodle

            Well my own prejudice is against mindless contrarianism: “it’s popular? Then it’s bad!” I see a lot of this in the comments section today, and a lot of it is plainly just as thoughtless as it would be to say “it’s popular? Then it’s good!” This is a tendency in a LOT of humans; it is why there is such a riddle as the following:

            Q: Why did the hipster burn his mouth?
            A: He ate pizza before it was cool.

            It’s just the automatic response to hype: dragging down the hype. Automatic equals unthinking.

            Aside from that, the rest of your last post is just like what would be said about many well-known musicians who get credit for an innovation, as against jazz musicians who may be just as inventive, but who we never know.

            It’s great to give credit where it’s due, and it’s detestable if someone claims credit for themselves where it’s NOT due; but wherefore should we tear down someone who’s getting credit, who’s lauded, and who’s lionized, but who actually deserves it? Elon Musk seems to me to deserve it. Why should we meet every mention of his name with a sneer, before we even know that he’s done anything bad worth sneering at?

          • Robert Thomas

            Few jazz musicians have been in the position to bet many millions of dollars of someone else’s money, such as the one in which Truax found himself.

            I make no effort to tear down anyone. Vance said Musk was an engineer and I was startled. If engineering is anything, it’s working with a team of peers to create useful mechanisms. A lone person doing such a thing is and inventor. Either activity is honorable.

            All of my life there have been contrarians who disparage the achievements of untrained, blustery, sketchily-educated self-promoter Thomas Edison while lauding the transcendent genius of Nikola Tesla. to the point of promoting conspiracy theories that speculate about the suppression of the latter’s work.

            My view is that while Tesla was a fascinating, learned and brilliant man, utterly without question Edison is the more impressive figure. The Tesla-ite contrarians (the mindless variety with whom, as I say, I have no truck) are full of hooey. Edison’s argument with Westinghouse was a loser’s foolishness but so what? On balance, Edison successfully brought more useful things into the world.

            Bold moves and good bets in the outrageously risky launch vehicle business have paid off for Elon Musk, so far. I think it’s premature to put him either in the category of epic losers, typified by his motorcar’s namesake or else into the pantheon of industrial genius. Just yet.

          • Whamadoodle

            Fair enough. I would only reserve judgment on his engineering prowess until I know more about his contributions.

            I can guarantee you, again making a bet of a fine Bay Area meal if I could only shake your hand, that if his contributions in engineering were actually negligible or being unduly puffed up by the book, then we would not wait long to hear critiques of the book to that effect, from several of those who worked with him and are aware of it.

            However, especially given how many laudatory pieces (60 Minutes has done them as well) there have already been about him, I’d have thought those people would already have spoken up, if there were such dirt to be mined.

          • Robert Thomas

            Honestly, I don’t think I’ve described any aspect of Musk’s behavior or activities as “dirty”. Some comments on this page invoke his aspect in messianic terms but I expect no surge of whistleblowers will approach The Guardian with evidence that he can’t actually make stars fall from the sky or raise the dead.

            If my comments are aimed anywhere, it’s at uncritical journalists and clueless humanities majors who imagine they know sufficient about the discipline of engineering to even recognize it when they see it. Along with these, scientists (exemplified here in Sean Dennehy’s comment) routinely dismiss entirely the value of the skills possessed and exercised by engineers.

            Generally the reaction from engineers is mute. Why bother responding, after all? A grizzled physicist at LBL once told me, “The reason we physicists sneer at engineers is that we spend our careers begging for money and engineers spend theirs putting money in the bank.” Truer words…

            In the U.S., people who imagine themselves educated seem to have decided – with palpable relief – that the youth of our distressed communities, once they’ve been taught “to code”, will soon achieve six-figure salaries that will return them and their families to the prosperity their semi-skilled grandparents once enjoyed, during the period when the manufacturing capacity of the rest of the world lay incinerated.

            “Why should it be otherwise?” these concerned and progressive-minded people conclude. After all, such economic success might easily have been their own, had they been dull and uncreative enough themselves to condescend to pay attention in dreary, prosaic Algebra II class, or to abort an often inebriated education in the liberal arts in favor of a few semesters of vocational college. “These unschooled, who once were sub-epsilon drudges, now will become sub-epsilon Lexus owners with three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths and discount cards for Whole Foods.” Whew! The Nations’ Problems – solved!

            I note that these words betray a certain sensitivity.

            I don’t expect to live long enough to see the advent of many people having any idea about what engineering is or what engineers do. Certainly, few journalists or English majors will. But one may ask, “So what?” In response, I have nothing.

          • Whamadoodle

            You say those of one profession fail to recognize, or know intimately the details of, another profession? Dear friend, you don’t say!

            Welcome to my world (and most people’s, in this time of specialization of tasks). There are good reasons for specialization of tasks, which include greater efficiency, better ability to create sophisticated technology and systems, and too many other things to list. Among the drawbacks of specialization of tasks is the undervaluation of some tasks, the overvaluation of others, and a general lack of knowledge of each other’s duties.

            This is fine, as long as workplaces keep identifying failures in their work, and as long as individuals keep identifying places where people with certain skills are scarce; but it is not fine if Idiocracy comes true, and people allow certain functions and skill sets to atrophy, without being aware enough of those functions to realize they’re losing something that adds value.

            As far as Elon Musk is concerned, I’ve seen as much demonization of him on this thread as beatification of him. But I was merely referring to an absence of substantial CRITICISM (from those who have worked with him, not people speculating on the Interwebz), not demonization.

          • Robert Thomas

            Thank you for your words of welcome.

          • Whamadoodle

            The pleasure is all mine, good sir!

    • chriswinter

      Robert Hutchings Goddard had no engineering degree either. His Ph.D. was in physics. He nevertheless managed to accomplish a great deal of engineering, earning over 200 patents in rocketry. I wonder how far he would have gotten if he’d had a fortune equivalent to Musk’s.

      • Robert Thomas

        Indeed! And as I wrote here elsewhere, I wonder what would have transpired if Truax or Citron or Gary Hudson – or Burt Rutan, for that matter – had had such resources.

  • erictremont

    I don’t doubt that Mr. Musk has entrepreneurial talent, but Tesla (unlike PayPal) seems to be mostly a creature of crony capitalism as it has received various government subsidies including a Federal loan, reduced property taxes, etc. I don’t have a problem with the government funding basic research or giving consumers an incentive to use clean energy alternatives, but I object to the government trying to pick winners in the industrial space—especially when a company like Tesla produces a product that is targeting a very affluent customer base.

    • ES Trader

      They will offer a mid price car next year and how do you feel about the lithium battery in Reno.

      It seems to me that government built the interstate highway system to stimulate sales, commerce, Musk is building the car, the battery and the solar power source all on his own.

      • erictremont

        I can see the necessity of subsidizing consumers in order to give them an incentive to use energy saving products, but I am not convinced it is necessary to give lots of subsidies to the producers of such products. Sixty years ago the Federal government funded the basic research that led to the polio vaccine, and that generated huge positive benefits for society but I don’t think it generated obscene profits for drug companies. As for the battery plant in Reno, it is my understanding that the state of Nevada is giving the company generous subsidies for locating the plant there.

        • ES Trader

          And what is the problem there ? Nevada believed it will create jobs and offered the best price, CA did not;all things being equal, it seems like a no brainer.

          • erictremont

            There is always a danger that companies which rely on subsidies will not prove to be economically viable (re: Solyndra).

          • Whamadoodle

            It’s worth pointing out that although Solyndra failed, that was 5% of the dollar amount of the clean energy subsidies disbursed at that time; the last time I checked, the other 95% were well-spent and had borne good fruit. You won’t hear it from Fox or NewsMax, but the vast majority of those subsidies did precisely what they should have done (promoting the General Welfare, by weaning us off a destructive and non-renewable source of energy, fossil fuels, whose precipitate disappearance not many decades from now will leave us in disorder, if the disappearance is not planned for).

          • erictremont

            So how do you know that the 95% of the firms that did not fail required a taxpayer subsidy?

          • Whamadoodle

            How do I know that they required a taxpayer subsidy? For the same reason that no one ever created an Internet until DARPA (a government agency) did so: because clean energy is a _new_ technology. Therefore, the markets for it aren’t established yet.

            Also, because energy isn’t LIKE other industries, even when established: it is a matter of national security; and it’s a need for the entire society, so it is a deal one practically can’t walk away from. Deals one can’t walk away from are automatic market-distorters, so to imagine some free-market utopia is even more fantastical than normal free-market utopian ideas are.

            New industries, like plants, sometimes need hothouse nurseries. Making hothouses illegal is illogical.

          • erictremont

            DARPA funded the basic research that made the Internet possible, which was a legitimate use of taxpayer funds. But DARPA did not provide subsidies to Netscape, Microsoft, Google, etc. This is an important distinction that you seem not to recognize.

          • Whamadoodle

            DARPA created the first Internet: not only research, but also hardware and software. It was a government project.

            I recognize it perfectly; I also recognize that the Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, and their engines, that won the Battle of Britain, were originally privately-invented planes and engines; this doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging that elsewhere in the world of manned flight, the first moon landing was a government project. I also recognize Richard Branson’s later private space flight attempts for being a private venture again.

            It sounds as if I’m able to acknowledge both private ventures, and government ventures, as such; you, on the other hand, seem to be the one who has a hard time acknowledging one of those entities’ contributions.

    • chriswinter

      So how do you feel about the subsidies the hugely profitable oil industry is getting?

      • erictremont

        I am 100% in favor of abolishing those subsidies too.

    • Another Mike

      I can only dream of a day when America has an industrial policy, like, say, South Korea’s. We wouldn’t have lost the leadership in solar cell fabrication to China, which received a lot of government investment.

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    How much of the dislike of Mr Musk is envy or the inability of some to appreciate or understand true genius?

    • ES Trader

      1000 %

    • Catch Blue

      Or trolls paid for by his enemies.

  • Sean Dennehy

    I think it’s a good thing that we’re going to SpaceX and private companies to send people to the ISS. This frees up NASA to go to Mars. I think that Musk means well, but I don’t think private companies can yet get to Mars, not before the government.

  • Sam Badger

    Elon Musk is obviously a very innovative businessman, but the cult of personality being built around him is troubling. It plays into an economic version of what critics in history called the “Great Man” view of historical change, where singular, genius individuals change the world, without fully regarding the importance of the workers below them or the conditions around them.

    • Robert Thomas

      It’s the Great Man view that’s embraced by virtually all modern popular journalism, in fact.

      • Catch Blue

        Yeah, but he really is a Great Man. Any honest appraisal of what he has done should leave you with that opinion.

        • Robert Thomas

          Any honest appraisal of of Richard Branson will result in the conclusion that he has Great Hair.

    • Whamadoodle

      My degrees were in history, and while I reject the idea that anyone is an independent Lone Ranger type, who singlehandedly makes history as if no one helped him or her, I DO feel that some people simply ARE great men or women. The Civil Rights movement needed a Martin Luther King, and India needed a Gandhi.

      LBJ’s civil rights legislation was drafted by a small army of legislators and lawyers and legal assistants, I’m sure, but it took LBJ to dunk that basketball. The position of power held by a president (whether of a company or of a country) confers GREAT power on that executive to make historic change.

    • Another Mike

      What I found weird about this interview was that it was with the “Great Man’s” biographer, and not the Great Man himself. Musk is still alive, and is probably the best source of information on his own life. It’s as if dealing with Musk first hand would overpower us. The biographer is Moses to Musk’s Big Guy.
      Another oddity was his mom’s kvelling over the boy Musk.

      • Bill_Woods

        Vance has a book to sell. Musk has several companies to run.

        • Beth Grant DeRoos

          And KQED Forum has tens of thousands of listeners who love thought provoking discussions. Love these book shows!

        • Frank Smith

          He only runs two companies. Solar City is run by his cousins.

      • Mallika

        Right on…..

      • Catch Blue

        I have read the book. As a teenager, Musk came to Canada and actually spent a summer cleaning out lumber-mill boilers by crawling into the boiler. Out of 30 employees, he was the only one who stuck around for the entire summer.

        From pretty much nothing, he became first a multi-millionaire (Zip2) and then Paypal, and now a billionaire. He is the definition of a self-made capitalist. It is beyond comedic that his enemies are trying to paint him as some sort of “government mooch”, especially since his enemies (fossil fuel companies and United Launch Alliance) are the poster boys for government subsidies.

    • ES Trader

      Thats human nature, the QB is paid more then the center that snaps him the ball or the OF lineman that block for him

  • Robert Thomas

    Listening to this book-flogging, I did begin to wonder what the profile of the launch vehicle industry would be now, had Bob Truax or Bob Citron, for example, had PayPal buy-out money dropped on top of them.

    Truax and Citron were odd ducks, too. And visionaries.

  • Watty Helms

    This discussion was one of the most fawning, fact-free discussions I’ve ever heard on Forum. I certainly won’t be buying the book.

  • Bob Fry

    Let’s see: by now, everybody from gays, to Aspergers, to introverts and extroverts, is acknowledged to be born that way.

    But a driven person like Elon Musk is assumed to have a “character flow” because he doesn’t keep careful, emphatic track of each employee’s personal home life.

    Sheesh. Saying he or similar people have “character flaws” makes the speaker feel better about themselves, nothing more. “Yeah, Elon is a frickin’ genius and will save the world from itself but hahaha at least I don’t have a character flaw like him!”

  • Mallika

    Michael, you interviewed the biographer, please interview the subject too for a well balanced report. Elon is very accessible. On a tour of the Spacex factory, I glimpsed Elon working on a Saturday evening around 4pm after the launch of Dragon. He was seated at his desk, it is an open layout floor, no doors or glass chambers. Elon’s actions and achievements speak louder than any words spoken or written about him. He is pure GENIUS and it is our misfortune if we do not recognize that formidable original thought.

    • jamiebronson

      yes, he is a complete genius at getting tax payers to fund all of his projects. Both in seed money and on going tax breaks and subsidies.

      • Whamadoodle

        Oh my GOD! He DOES? That’s–

        –not necessarily objectionable in any way, provided that it promotes the general welfare!

        • jamiebronson

          You might want to do some investigation of Musk before making that statement.

          • Whamadoodle

            You’re welcome to post any clear evidence of some horrible things he’s doing, instead of hinting darkly at it. Just saying “OMG! He’s getting taxpayer funding and subsidies!” and dropping dark hints just aren’t intrinsically hysteria-inducing, if that’s what you’re after.

            (If it were, then as Beth DeRoos points out, there’d be a long list of military contractors getting TRUCKLOADS of taxpayer money, but there’s suspiciously little criticism of them from those who freak out whenever renewable energy is subsidized.)

          • jamiebronson

            Who said anything about military contractors?

          • Whamadoodle

            “Who said anything about military contractors?”

            Um… I just told you (pretty clearly, I thought?):

            Beth DeRoos did; and then I did. You ducked the question (both times), of course, but that is our point. You fume about tax subsidies for electric cars or solar energy, but you go veeeery veeery quiet when military contractors’ subsidies are pointed out. Funny, that.

          • jamiebronson

            You forgot @ or “commenter.” Her comment was on a different thread. But in any case she uses a redirection argument that has no relevance to this discussion. She is making an assumption that I and others are not upset about those other subsides. This Forum discussion was on Musk not the military. If we were discussing the military, gas companies. etc. I would be making the same argument.

          • Whamadoodle

            Her comment was below, on this page. I didn’t “forget” anything, I assumed you had read her comment and knew what she said (as, of course, you did).

            That it has “no relevance,” obviously, is only your opinion, and is just as obviously not my or Beth’s opinion. You brought up tax breaks and subsidies, by the way, in reply to a poster who wasn’t talking about that at all, so it’s rather dishonest to say “hey, that’s not on topic” now, while you yourself are apparently free to change the topic to tax breaks and tax subsidies all you want?

            Anyway, if you’re calling for a complete moratorium on all taxpayer funding of the military, and of other traditional promotion of the general welfare like energy subsidies, that is obviously not the will of the American people; Ron Paul lost resoundingly when he attempted to run on cutting the military budget as well as the health care budget. So the American people didn’t choose that.

            OTOH, if you’re calling for JUDICIOUS taxpayer funding of the military, and of other traditional promotion of the general welfare like energy subsidies, I quite agree: we should be judicious in it. Renewable energy sources are the very definition of “judicious,” considering that fossil fuels will be used up within some decades, whereas renewable energy sources, by definition, won’t be.

          • jamiebronson

            – I didn’t read her comment. I had to use page search to find it
            – Not calling for defunding the military. Calling for elimination of bad programs – pork. Like an airplane we have spent a trillion dollars on that cannot fly in wet weather
            – I didn’t vote for Ron Paul, and I am not a libertarian.
            – tax subsides are on topic because the program was about elon musk who has partly been successful in his new endeavors because of tax payer funded seed money and huge tax subsidies.

          • Whamadoodle

            Well the poster you were replying to wasn’t saying anything about tax subsidies, or anything like it.

            But otherwise, sounds good, then; I agree that the Joint Strike Fighter, and other pork-barrel boondoggles, should be eliminated (though they won’t be). If you can identify any precise areas of Elon Musk’s work that are similarly unworthy of funding, do let us know.

          • Whamadoodle

            Shorter: no, actually, one doesn’t need to research ANYTHING before stating that tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies are not intrinsically objectionable. Tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies are perfectly acceptable to most Americans.

      • Beth Grant DeRoos

        Remind us again JamieBronson what brilliant idea have you come up with that is producing lots of money for yourself?

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Monday that a Los Angeles Times article claiming his companies received government subsidies is incorrect. Musk said that the only incentives he bargained for directly were state-level incentives. These include a small launch site in Texas for SpaceX and a Tesla gigafactory in Nevada. He explained that such incentive packages have existed long before his companies received some of them.

  • Whamadoodle

    On the question of whether electric car-makers and alternative-energy manufacturers like Elon Musk should be getting government subsidies, a number of leading British scientists and former members of government have advised that we create an “Apollo mission for climate change.”

    Apparently, we–that is, the whole world–only spend about $6 billion a year on this, but they urge spending around $15 billion a year for the next decade ($150 billion in today’s money is what the Apollo moon missions would have cost) for alternative electricity generation, to save the world from climate change.

    I’d say this is a must; we spend MANY times this amount on ridiculous boondoggles like the Joint Strike Fighter that we don’t even need at all, and which in fact are nearly useless. We can manage a fraction of that spending on something that we desperately need, if we’re to slow or stop man-made climate change.

  • Catch Blue

    Musk’s company Solar City is likely to cause billions in losses for entrenched energy interests. His company Tesla is likely to cause huge losses for entrenched energy and automotive interests. His rocket company SpaceX is already causing huge losses for entrenched American launch monopolist United Launch Alliance.

    Is it much of a stretch to imagine that his enemies have created an organized propaganda campaign against him that includes paid posters on discussion boards like this? It doesn’t cost that much money to do such a thing. I do see evidence on this discussion that a single person is posting under several names. And why are so many right-wing posters suddenly showing up on a left-wing NPR website?

    Quite honestly, I think that unmoderated public discussion boards are inherently vulnerable to paid trolls, and I think that we should all be wary of them. Even when a “real name” is required, it is trivial to circumvent this to come up with a fictional identity.

  • Frank Smith

    Musk doesn’t “run” Solar City. He simply chairs the board. Anyone who actually reads up on him knows that. Sad excuse for reporting.

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