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selling handmade violins

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20 hours ago, Jeffrey Holmes said:

I assume you are referring to mythologizing as "create or promote an exaggerated or idealized image of."

I don't believe that's what I was doing. Carl referred to "artsy" violin making as inefficient specifically pertaining to cost of materials. I acknowledged his point, but went on to point out there are different tiers (or quality levels if you like) within the craft.  Since the industry's inception, there always have been. BTW: Personally I shy away from using the word "art" to describe what we do, though I concede that a number of the procedures can be approached "artistically".

Instruments produced in factory/workshop setting and/or in counties with developing economies may certainly have an innate efficiency in their production costs... and access to cheap labor.  Buying raw materials in large lots and grading is an efficiency as well... but they are often not accessing the same materials or treating the materials in the same manner as a top level maker would, and they aren't producing a product for the same market segment... and they are motivated to capture market share by volume and price while producing a consistent product that serves that market segment well.  Within those settings, there are often a few who emerge as higher level makers... but they don't market their wares within those parameters for long. As one example, I'd point to Shan Jiang (Feng Jiang's brother) who now lives outside NY city, after relocating from Beijing, I believe. There are certainly other examples.

If we are going to discuss other tiers in the industry, where efficiencies exist and where they don't, I think it's critical for those participating in that exchange have an understanding of how those markets work (significant experience within it might be nice), how large the market actually is, how reputation effects demand, and what products (parameters) are successful (produce a lasting success) within it. 

Thanks for addressing the issues Jeffrey. Yesterday's debate was interesting.

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20 hours ago, David Burgess said:

The efficiency one sees on factory promotional videos is quite different from what I actually witnessed when I visited a violin making factory in China.

China's main advantage is inexpensive labor. A factory worker in China might earn about $300 per month, and consider it a privilege, since it is so much more than they could have earned in the rural area they came from. This wage gives them roughly the purchasing power of $2000 in the US, though estimates vary, and it also varies by location and the local cost of living.

Like it was in Germany 100 years ago?

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20 hours ago, carl stross said:

I am quite sure they do have very skilled luthiers. But I think most of the time the efficiency comes from doing the same operation all day long, all year round. I observed for a couple of months the Reghin factory in the early '80s and some people there where incredibly quick. But most were doing one or two operations. They had some "full violin" :) makers for their pricier export orders and those could make 3 violins/week in the white. Saturdays were a normal working day. The wood was absolutely stunning but while the workmanship was very clean, it wasn't anything which would pass today as "fine violin making". MN tends to be focused on finest of modern violin making. Europe in the 70s had lots of makers who simply made violins best they could and as quickly as they could. I met quite a few and they were all nice and hard working people, a common trait being that each of them new the secret of Stradivarius.

The secret of Stradivarius? You mean shut up and get on with it?

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18 hours ago, MaestronetLurker said:

If you look at the typical cost of Chinese factory labor vs. American factory labor you see that it costs 15 times more/hour to make something in the US.  I have not seen any factory made US violins with a wholesale price under $5,000 and they're nicer than Chinese violins that wholesale for $1,000+.  I just don't see either factory model pumping out great violins in 100 hours.  I tend to see more expensive Chinese violins having more improvement in varnish and antiquing than in tone.  Essentially the factory model just isn't allowing the time for someone to optimize each individual instrument the way an individual maker would try to do.

I really don't think there's any ground to suggest that the Chinese have some secret method to make violins faster.  They just pay people less and crank out the same product repetitively.  I know there are some good Chinese makers, but I've never seen high output of master level work.

Comparing high output of factories to low output of individual makers is just not an apples to apples comparison.

How did Stradivari make all those violins, violas, cellos, guitars, haps? mandolins? With only his sons Francesco and Omobono to help him?

They must have worked quickly? Less than 100 hours per violin, maybe sometimes a lot less?

I think for 100 hours of work from a good workshop in China, you are going to get one heck of a violin, just the same as you would in Cremona 300 years ago. And I would be those Cremonese and Brescian master luthiers didn't charge a huge amount either.

We westerners nowadays have different expectations in terms of approval and financial gain. Are we just delusional as Bill says?

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1 hour ago, sospiri said:

How did Stradivari make all those violins, violas, cellos, guitars, haps? mandolins? With only his sons Francesco and Omobono to help him?

They must have worked quickly? Less than 100 hours per violin, maybe sometimes a lot less?

I think for 100 hours of work from a good workshop in China, you are going to get one heck of a violin, just the same as you would in Cremona 300 years ago. And I would be those Cremonese and Brescian master luthiers didn't charge a huge amount either.

We westerners nowadays have different expectations in terms of approval and financial gain. Are we just delusional as Bill says?

A 40 hour work week is a fairly recent thing.  Labor statistics show that factory workers in China still work 12 hour days on average.  If you look at Strad's shop, which probably had longer work weeks back then, and possibly 1 day off a week.  You'd expect higher output.  Even so, while he had various apprentices over the years in addition to Francesco and Omobono 1,200 instruments isn't that high for a shop averaging at least 3 workers.

1,200 instruments over 70 years is 17/year or less than 6/person.  Even considering that they also made cases and bows this is not an impressively high number for that size of workshop.  I still just don't see any evidence of high level work being cranked out every 100 hours.

 

I have yet to see a Chinese factory violin for cheap that competes with the average professional maker that I've seen in the US (haven't seen as much from other countries, not suggesting that American makers are the best).  Sure there are some good makers, but the great 100 hour violin is just a myth as far as I can tell.  
 

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I think it's possible to make a high-quality violin in 100 hours, but not just anybody can do it. Stradivari seems to have been a rather remarkable man.

I no longer focus on speed, as much as I do on trying to make each instrument as good as those I've liked the best.

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Roger Hargrave wrote an interesting article that I will quote:

"The Stradivari workshop was probably modelled
on that of Nicolo Amati who, as has been pointed out,
employed numerous apprentices. Apart from Antonio's
three sons, it is possible that several other makers
were employed, possibly even after the golden
period. There is no sign that Carlo Bergonzi was
working alone in Cremona until about 1730. This effectively
means that more than 30 of his working
years remain unaccounted for. At this time instruments
from Vincenzo Rugeri are also rare, as are
those of Giuseppe filius Andrea' Guarneri throughout
the 1720s. And finally, there is the mysterious absence
of Giuseppe Guarneri 'del Gesu', also in the
1720s. In fact, outside the Stradivari workshop, production
in Cremona was at an exceptionally low ebb.
It is not beyond reason to suppose that these makers
were all contributing to the massive output of instruments
labelled by Antonio Stradivari. If so, it
would also be reasonable to suppose that they were
doing important work and not simply jointing backs
and making pegs." (Roger Hargrave, "Undercover Agents", on the bibliotek of his website).

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  Thanks Manfio for reporting this, what Hargrave writes make much sense and I fully agree.

To have an output similar to that of Stradivari workshop only two or three people at work are not enough.

Dedication to speed work is a thing of modern times, in ancient times was not so and they took the time needed if the work had to be of high quality, fast work was for the low quality (not only in violin making but in all craft and artwork)

100 hours is not enough for make a quality violin, neither now nor then, this is my opinion, but maybe it's just my limit.

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Just for fun I checked the wiki on Guarneri.  There is a list of his instruments (probably incomplete).

11 are noted as "1732", 3 as "c. 1732", and 1 as "c. 1732-33".  I don't know how accurate this data is.  Presumably some of his 1732 instruments have not survived.  So was he very productive in that year, average, below or?  If about 1/2 of Strads have survived and applying a similar factor to Guarneri, is it reasonable that he might have made 25-30 violins in 1732 or not?  

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On 1/27/2017 at 7:05 PM, Bill Merkel said:

^The non-delusional (sane) way to think of wood is just a material with certain properties. :)

You know, you might want to start a thread on this one day. Is there a certain level of "sufficiency" when it comes to violins ? It'd be quite interesting to hear what everybody thinks of that.  I won't spoil that possible discussion but I will say that my lifetime observations told me there is a "sufficiency" in the playing ability of the string sections in orchestras. Some sections need be as good as possible ( technically ) but to get a good sound , strings need to be just "sufficient". 

Well, you'll pick it up if you feel like.

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45 minutes ago, Greg F. said:

Just for fun I checked the wiki on Guarneri.  There is a list of his instruments (probably incomplete).

11 are noted as "1732", 3 as "c. 1732", and 1 as "c. 1732-33".  I don't know how accurate this data is.  Presumably some of his 1732 instruments have not survived.  So was he very productive in that year, average, below or?  If about 1/2 of Strads have survived and applying a similar factor to Guarneri, is it reasonable that he might have made 25-30 violins in 1732 or not?  

Labels are not necessarily accurate, it should be established which are authentic and which are not,  and in any case I do not think GdG violins were considered "high quality instruments" in his time.....

 

 

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5 hours ago, Davide Sora said:

 To have an output similar to that of Stradivari workshop only two or three people at work are not enough...

 

I think it is. One year, I made 17 instruments, including three cellos. I had assistance, but it was the equivalent of less than one full-time person.

Granted, it wasn't a typical set of circumstances. I was younger, was working about 80 hours per week, and had recently gone through a "brainwashing" program to break free of self-limiting beliefs. I don't have any reason to believe that the quality suffered. But it does require a very intense level of concentration. No daydreaming, or working "on autopilot". Always thinking about, "How can I do this faster?" Sometimes it's quite simple, like figuring out that you can move a plane back and forth twice as fast, without really sacrificing any control.

But now, I'm old and soft and more self-indulgent, and no longer have the desire to work at that pace. :(;)

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My record is a viola in 21 days, including the varnish, now with a player of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

I was younger, don't want to do that again.

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For a physically fit ,well trained maker with no distractions100 hours for a violin is no great trick. I have personally made 37 white cellos and half a dozen set up violins and violas in an 18 month period. I also was responsible for setting another 6-8 necks for other people each week and some machine maintenance and supervisory duties. I have also seen a viola which was made, varnished and set up in 5 days according to the fairly well known soloist who was playing it professionally. The instrument was made by her former and then dead husband and she watched him do it. I can think of no reason she would lie about it. I have also been told of a violin made in four days by both the maker and a couple of his class mates who watched him make it.

Designing new models, making templates and molds, making varnish and deciding on specifications all take an undetermined length of time.  Once these things are done making the instruments is pretty straight forward and output is only limited by how fast one's hands can move.

As far as speed of work determining quality I can say that I have never made an instrument that every one liked nor have I ever heard of any one else doing so. I have also never made an instrument that nobody liked. There are some of my instruments that I like more than others but I can't say that more time would have made me like the others better and as far as sound I have yet to hear anyone's work sound the same on every instrument and I can't imagine why any one would want to do that.

If you make a lot of instruments you will make a certain percentage that come out good and a smaller percentage that are great. Making fewer instruments in my opinion won't change that ratio.    

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1 hour ago, David Burgess said:

I think it is. One year, I made 17 instruments, including three cellos. I had assistance, but it was the equivalent of less than one full-time person.

Granted, it wasn't a typical set of circumstances. I was younger, was working about 80 hours per week, and had recently gone through a "brainwashing" program to break free of self-limiting beliefs. I don't have any reason to believe that the quality suffered. But it does require a very intense level of concentration. No daydreaming, or working "on autopilot". Always thinking about, "How can I do this faster?" Sometimes it's quite simple, like figuring out that you can move a plane back and forth twice as fast, without really sacrificing any control.

But now, I'm old and soft and more self-indulgent, and no longer have the desire to work at that pace. :(;)

i can attest to David's drive when he was (a little) younger. :) I didn't attend the same brainwashing program David did, but was nevertheless "inspired" to at least try to emulate his work ethic.  Some long days... and rest sometimes came as catnaps rather than a cushy 8 hours.  I also am now much more self-indulgent.... but I do occasionally find myself captured by a project and have to be reminded to eat!

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6 hours ago, David Burgess said:

One year, I made 17 instruments, including three cellos. ...  I had assistance, but it was the equivalent of less than one full-time person. Always thinking about, "How can I do this faster?" Sometimes it's quite simple, like figuring out that you can move a plane back and forth twice as fast, without really sacrificing any control.

There are an awful lot of distractions these days... internet, TV, easy transportation to anywhere you want to visit.  In 1500 Italy, it might have been easier to spend a higher percentage of one's time in productive work.

Or maybe I'm just old, lazy, and easily distracted.

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7 hours ago, Bill Merkel said:

^They had their opportunities for distraction, just not advanced ones.  Family matters, speculating on flat Earth, dueling, games, public executions.  No excuses there.

Not to mention that things we take for granted were more time consuming then than today.  We flush a toilet, they...  We open the fridge and microwave something, they...  We switch on a light, they...   We have power tools, they...  Etc.

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16 hours ago, nathan slobodkin said:

For a physically fit ,well trained maker with no distractions100 hours for a violin is no great trick. I have personally made 37 white cellos and half a dozen set up violins and violas in an 18 month period. I also was responsible for setting another 6-8 necks for other people each week and some machine maintenance and supervisory duties. I have also seen a viola which was made, varnished and set up in 5 days according to the fairly well known soloist who was playing it professionally. The instrument was made by her former and then dead husband and she watched him do it. I can think of no reason she would lie about it. I have also been told of a violin made in four days by both the maker and a couple of his class mates who watched him make it.

Designing new models, making templates and molds, making varnish and deciding on specifications all take an undetermined length of time.  Once these things are done making the instruments is pretty straight forward and output is only limited by how fast one's hands can move.

As far as speed of work determining quality I can say that I have never made an instrument that every one liked nor have I ever heard of any one else doing so. I have also never made an instrument that nobody liked. There are some of my instruments that I like more than others but I can't say that more time would have made me like the others better and as far as sound I have yet to hear anyone's work sound the same on every instrument and I can't imagine why any one would want to do that.

If you make a lot of instruments you will make a certain percentage that come out good and a smaller percentage that are great. Making fewer instruments in my opinion won't change that ratio.    

Great post  Nathan.

Having watched a good  many makers at work, some very experienced, I'm often surprised  at  how  much time and effort  can be wasted on  simple things. It's  almost  as though working slowly and inefficiently somehow  adds value. 

It doesn't.  A violin corner cut with a few strokes of a sharp  knife is always going to have more flair  and life than one carefully  ground out with a file (often from a completely  unnecessary  3mm of waste that should have been chopped  off with a saw in the first place)

Same goes  for  arching. Who in their  right mind (I ask myself) would chip away half an inch of  maple with a gouge, when they could strip it off with a scrub plane in a few minutes?

It's  only  the last stroke of the knife, gouge or scraper that matters. This is what makes  a  good  violin. All the rest  is just waste removal and  should be  got through  as quickly as possible. 

 

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20 hours ago, David Burgess said:

I think it is. One year, I made 17 instruments, including three cellos. I had assistance, but it was the equivalent of less than one full-time person.

Granted, it wasn't a typical set of circumstances. I was younger, was working about 80 hours per week, and had recently gone through a "brainwashing" program to break free of self-limiting beliefs. I don't have any reason to believe that the quality suffered. But it does require a very intense level of concentration. No daydreaming, or working "on autopilot". Always thinking about, "How can I do this faster?" Sometimes it's quite simple, like figuring out that you can move a plane back and forth twice as fast, without really sacrificing any control.

But now, I'm old and soft and more self-indulgent, and no longer have the desire to work at that pace. :(;)

I think luthiers (myself included) tend to under estimate the hours spent on many tasks.  Somewhere I read that craftspeople in general tend to estimate about 1/2 the actual time it takes to do something, which is a problem for many contractors.  When I do the math on this it doesn't look that close to 100 hours per instrument.

If we count the cellos as 3 violins to simplify the math we'll call it 23 violins that year.  Take your 80 hours with 20 hours/week of help, give you both 2 weeks off it comes out to 217 hours per instrument.  If we deduct 1/3 of your time for non violin making tasks it's still 145 hours for a more streamlined approach involving 2 luthiers working together.

I certainly agree, though, that things can be streamlined more than what may be typical.  I've worked in shops doing setup in an assembly line fashion and found that you start taking fewer cuts to get to a similar result compared to the occasional one-off bridge that takes longer.  It takes me 3 times longer to cut a bridge off the assembly line, but there was very little time to consider nuances when working on the assembly line.  Ultimately the name of the game is 'eliminate the wasted motion', which is good for speed and quality.

I imagine a shop like Strad's (in my fantasy imagining of how his shop would have worked) may have the master overseeing 3-5 makers who are doing all the rough work for him in assembly line fashion and he is taking the time to make the important decisions and acting as puppet master for much of the process.  Stepping in for the final touches that require the hand of the master.

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19 hours ago, nathan slobodkin said:

For a physically fit ,well trained maker with no distractions100 hours for a violin is no great trick. I have personally made 37 white cellos and half a dozen set up violins and violas in an 18 month period. I also was responsible for setting another 6-8 necks for other people each week and some machine maintenance and supervisory duties. I have also seen a viola which was made, varnished and set up in 5 days according to the fairly well known soloist who was playing it professionally. The instrument was made by her former and then dead husband and she watched him do it. I can think of no reason she would lie about it. I have also been told of a violin made in four days by both the maker and a couple of his class mates who watched him make it.

Designing new models, making templates and molds, making varnish and deciding on specifications all take an undetermined length of time.  Once these things are done making the instruments is pretty straight forward and output is only limited by how fast one's hands can move.

As far as speed of work determining quality I can say that I have never made an instrument that every one liked nor have I ever heard of any one else doing so. I have also never made an instrument that nobody liked. There are some of my instruments that I like more than others but I can't say that more time would have made me like the others better and as far as sound I have yet to hear anyone's work sound the same on every instrument and I can't imagine why any one would want to do that.

If you make a lot of instruments you will make a certain percentage that come out good and a smaller percentage that are great. Making fewer instruments in my opinion won't change that ratio.    

 

Forgive my skepticism, and that I'm questioning these times from much more experienced makers.  I really don't mean any disrespect to any of you.  I'm just trying to get to some of the root of these time estimates because I just don't see them happening in practice.

When making the 37 white cellos I presume that you're working on a workshop line for a shop, is that correct?  If so, were any portions outsourced, such as pre-assembled rib garlands, partially pre-carved scrolls, jointed roughed out plates etc...?  How long was your work week?  Was that work up to the standard that you'd hold if you were putting your name on it?  I ask only because I've witnessed some very fast work on workshop instruments before, but luthiers involved have admitted that they wouldn't have let some of those things go if they were putting their name on it.  To me that falls closer to the factory model than a maker taking the time to do their best work.  I think there's an important distinction.

There's a local shop putting out a workshop line that the luthiers initially said would take them 40 hours in an assembly line, but in practice it is closer to 80 hours (not sure if that is with or without varnish), and they're all embarrassed with the results.  They're all well qualified to make better violins, but with someone else's label in it and the boss cracking the whip they're cutting a lot of corners that they wouldn't otherwise.

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1 hour ago, MaestronetLurker said:

I think luthiers (myself included) tend to under estimate the hours spent on many tasks.  Somewhere I read that craftspeople in general tend to estimate about 1/2 the actual time it takes to do something, which is a problem for many contractors.

That's interesting.  I thought it was due to the unknowns, and I'd expect few of those once you'd done the same task a few hundred times.  Anyway it seems to be pretty universal.  My rule of thumb make the most accurate estimate you can, and then double it.  Then double that.  If you come in under time, you're a hero.  But if you take the same amount of time and it's over the estimate you gave, they are not happy. :)   Nobody cares a bit if you take awhile -- the thing they don't like is expecting something to be done when it isn't.

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5 hours ago, MaestronetLurker said:

 

Forgive my skepticism, and that I'm questioning these times from much more experienced makers.  I really don't mean any disrespect to any of you.  I'm just trying to get to some of the root of these time estimates because I just don't see them happening in practice.

When making the 37 white cellos I presume that you're working on a workshop line for a shop, is that correct?  If so, were any portions outsourced, such as pre-assembled rib garlands, partially pre-carved scrolls, jointed roughed out plates etc...?  How long was your work week?  Was that work up to the standard that you'd hold if you were putting your name on it?  I ask only because I've witnessed some very fast work on workshop instruments before, but luthiers involved have admitted that they wouldn't have let some of those things go if they were putting their name on it.  To me that falls closer to the factory model than a maker taking the time to do their best work.  I think there's an important distinction.

There's a local shop putting out a workshop line that the luthiers initially said would take them 40 hours in an assembly line, but in practice it is closer to 80 hours (not sure if that is with or without varnish), and they're all embarrassed with the results.  They're all well qualified to make better violins, but with someone else's label in it and the boss cracking the whip they're cutting a lot of corners that they wouldn't otherwise.

Lurker,

The shop was set up for efficient production and we generally worked about 60 hours a week.  I also made two cellos at a time so there was no down time for glue drying.There were times some one else might have helped with roughing out a fingerboard or squaring a neck block however I was also doing that sort of thing for people higher up the chain than I was so the time factor was a wash. My name did go on them as a signature on the label and I sometimes see them come into my shop being played by conservatory students or amateur players. While they are not of the standard of my instruments today they are well made, functional instruments and I am not ashamed of them. The difference in quality was much more a matter of my knowledge and experience at the time than "letting things go"or working too quickly. The fact that I now take much longer to complete an instrument is a matter of having many distractions, working much fewer hours and in fact never really being "in practice" due to the fewer hours worked. The primary difference in the quality of my work today is that I have developed a readily recognizable style and have the experience to make better decisions about the things which make an instrument sound well. Neither of these things takes more time in the actual removing of wood or gluing things together. Varnishing and set up of course add another week to the time but if I was still able to make more than one instrument at a time the varnish time would be reduced considerably.

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On 1/28/2017 at 1:47 PM, sospiri said:

The secret of Stradivarius? You mean shut up and get on with it?

I wish. :)   No, it was ( usually ) a lengthy theory about some sort of secret formula for varnish or wood treatment. And the funny thing was that most of those things did some good, somewhere. But not everywhere. And where they did not improve things, they did real damage. There were two things I noticed ( in hindsight ) in the '70s : most makers were "creating" their own model, a very debatable idea based on the results and most of them used a specific grad pattern which when the violin was played by a player in good shape, did not sound all bad. Some makers must've been incredibly competent at chopping wood : I ordered a violin on a Wednesday around lunch time ( selecting the wood ) and I picked it up fully varnished on Monday next. I think I payed 650DM for it and he wasn't unhappy. It didn't sound half bad. I remember that he did not have a spare case ( and it didn't cross my mind to bring one ) . He simply wrapped it quite professionally in newspaper and tied it all up with string, even more professionally. He was a lovely chap and strange enough, an excellent player. 

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