CategoryText Interviews

Technoccult Interview: Open Source Buddhism with Al Jigong Billings

Al Billings

Many Technoccult readers have probably seen Hermetic.com. Maybe you even got your first taste of Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare or Hakim Bey there. What you might not know is that the site’s founder, Al Jigong Billings has given up the site to focus on what he calls “Open Source Buddhism.” I recently talked with Al about what Open Source Buddhism is, how it differs from other contemporary the Pragmatic Dharma movement and the secular mindfulness movement, and how he gravitated from Neopaganism to Buddhism.

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Vice’s Hamilton Morris Interviewed on Hallucinogenic Fish [Guest Post]

sarpa salpa fish

In 2006 two men cooked and ate a fish which they had caught in the Western Mediterranean. Minutes after ingesting the fish frightening visual and auditory hallucinations began to overcome them. These intense visions lasted 36 hours. The fish they had caught was a Sarpa Salpa. A species of Sea Bream which is commonly found off the coast of South Africa and Malta and can induce ichthyoallyeinotoxism, a condition also known as hallucinogenic fish poisoning.

I recently learned that Vice columnist Hamilton Morris is assembling a team to capture and analyze a live sample of Sarpa Salpa. Morris is a writer and filmmaker and expert in anything psychoactive. In his column for Vice, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, he mixes his subjective experiences with insights into pharmacology, neurology and chemistry. In one column he traveled to the Amazonian jungle to have the secretions of a “shamanic” frog burnt into his arm. In another he traveled to Haiti to be dusted with the voodoo “zombie” poison Tetrodotoxin. He is currently working on a complex research project about extremely obscure information related to psychoactive mushrooms.

I e-mailed Hamilton to find out more about his trip.

Stephen Baxendale: Do you have any theories on what causes the fish to be hallucinogenic?

Hamilton Morris: The sea is a rich source of halogens. Scientists have found a variety of marine iodo-tryptophans and chloro-tryptophans in compounds like the plakohypaphorines and some amazing sponge derived tryptamines, like 5-bromo-DMT, which has been demonstrated to have “antidepressant-like” activity in rodents and is possibly psychedelic in humans. It seems that many of the sponge derived tryptamines are of microbial origin and same is true for more complex compounds like TTX and probably the byrostatins. So I think it is likely the fish ingests some kind of a microorganism that biosynthesizes the compound, which may behave as a classical serotonergic psychedelic or may have some messier deliriant effects, based on the case reports either could be possible.

Do you plan on ingesting the fish yourself?

If I have positively identified the species as Sarpa salpa I will carefully ingest it, starting with 1µg of fish and incrementally increasing the dose.

Do you think consuming hallucinogenic fish will ever catch on as a recreational drug?

Well it was already popular in the Roman empire so it’s really a question of whether it will make a comeback.

For more information:

Wikipedia: Hallucinogenic fish poisoning

Hamilton Morris’ Vice column

Stephen Baxendale is a writer from Liverpool, England. He specializes in lowlife literature and fringe journalism

Photo by Steven Van Tendeloo / CC

Notes from a William Gibson Q&A Session (9/08/10)

These are my notes from William Gibson’s Q&A session after his Zero History reading at Powells Books in Portland, OR on 9/08/2010 (here are some photographs from the evening). I thought initially that most of this would come up in other interviews, but I recently reviewed my notes and realized that although some of it has come up elsewhere, some of it is either unique or unusual. So I decided to type up my notes.

Gibson started off saying “Powells is the best book store in the world. It’s not even a book store, it’s a genre all to its own,” before reading the first chapter of Zero History. After the reading he said “The reason I write opening chapters the way I do is to get rid of all the people who won’t ‘get’ the book. They’re all fairly easy to read after the first chapter.” He then opened up to questions. Most, probably all, of these answers are incomplete – but close to direct quotes from larger answers. I didn’t ask most of these questions and didn’t get down the exact questions asked.

Q: What’s next?

Gibson: I have no idea. I have to have no idea. I know no one believes me, but I never intended to make trilogies. When I was learning about writing, I was told that trilogy was a long novel with a boring middle published separately. I think the books could be read in any order. I think I would be interesting to read these backwards. But maybe that’s too advanced.

[of course now he’s said that his next novel will probably be about the future]

Where do you go for inspiration?

I’m not a globe trotting writer/researcher. Wherever I happen to go usually ends up in the book. For example, I happened to go to Myrtle Beach a few months before I wrote the book and I thought it was suitably weird.

Asked about predictions.

I’m not interested in the sort of sci-fi that does or doesn’t predict the iPad. I’m interested in how people behave.

Asked about the intelligence communities in his books

I don’t want anyone to think I’ve gone “Tom Clancy” but what you find is that you have fans in every line of work. How reliable those narrators are I don’t know, but they tell a good story.

Asked about humor in his work.

Neuromancer was not without a comedic edge. My cyberpunk colleagues and I back in our cyberpunk rat hole sniggered mightily as we slapped our knees.

But writers can’t have more than two hooks. “Gritty, punky,” sure. “Gritty, punky, funny” doesn’t work.

I asked him about the slogan “Never in fashion, always in style” because I read that slogan on his blog and never found out what company that slogan actually belonged to.

Aero Leathers in Scotland. But they weight too much. You wouldn’t tour in a WWII motorcyle jacket unless of course you were on a WWII motorcycle. [Gibson reportedly wore an Acronym jacket on the Zero History tour]

Asked about Twitter

Twitter is the best aggregator of novelty anywhere. There’s more weird shit there than anywhere. It’s the equivalent value of $300 worth of imported magazines for free every day.

Asked about hypertext/electronic media and how it is changing his work.

The book is a cloud of hyperlinks. You can Google any unfamiliar phrase and you will be sort of walking in my shoes, going where I did in my research. The links are there, and there’s even some easter eggs.

I’m not sure what question this was in response to

I large part of my narrative comes from growing up in a particularly backwards part of the south, which had a particularly spoken culture.

Asked about his favorite contemporary writers

[Anything by Iian Sinclair, Zoo City by Lauren Bach, Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which he found “wounding.”]

Asked about the punk influence on his work.

It wasn’t the Sex Pistols, it was Waylon and Willy.

Asked what sci-fi influenced him.

Certain sci-fi that never had much impact on the mainstream of the genre. My novels have had very little impact as well. If you don’t believe me, go down to a sci-fi specialist shop. Cyberpunk has become a descriptor – cyberpunk albums, cyberpunk pants.

Asked about cyberpunk’s legacy.

Anything with a manifesto ends up looking silly.

Asked what he thinks of the post-cyberpunk writers, Cory Doctorow et al.

I think the original cyberpunks were a little thin on the ground.

See also: William Gibson dossier.

Technoccult Interivew: King City Artist/Writer Brandon Graham

King City cover by Brandon Graham

King City by Brandon Graham is a comic book about a guy named Joe and his cat Earthling in a far future metropolis run by spy gangs and evil sorcerers. It’s full of weird drugs, black magic, luchador masks and oddball humor.

This month Image Comics published a collection of all 12 issues of King City, which was originally serialized from 2007 to 2010. After a battle with testicular caner Graham literally gave his left nut to finish the book. He’s now working on Prophet for Image and Multiple Warheads for Oni Press. I caught-up with him to talk about Moebius, graffiti, technology in science fiction and more.

Brandon Graham

How many details about the city were conceived in advance? Did you create maps, or list of facts and details about the world the book takes place in, or did you just make it up as you went along?

I had some rough ideas about the characters but I pretty much made up the city as I went along. I was always trying to base places off of somewhere I’d been. I think of Joe and Pete’s place in the 2nd half of KC as being in Seattle’s China town. The diner where Pete meets Exiekiel to get information about the alien lady was me trying to draw a diner in Queens.

King City Board Game

King City, to me anyway, has a very spontaneous feel. I imagine you just making up each page as you went along, packing them with as much detail as possible. Or did you have a more structured plan for each issue?

I had a real rough structure for everything but I try to allow for a lot of drawing what I’m in the mood to draw. And I usually lay out the book in 4 or 5 page chunks as I go along.

It’s nice to just follow your mood with a page and try to find new ways to stay interested in what you’re doing. I like to think about what’ll be fun to draw on the next page forcing me to speed up on what I’m doing because I’m so excited about what’s next. And then there’s days where I’m just not thinking about what comes next and I’m just having fun making lines on paper.

King City appears to take place in the far future, and there are references to certain technological advances like nanotechnology. But in some ways it seems really low tech – I’m not sure we ever see anyone use a cell phone or the Internet. For example, Anna seems to have no way of reaching Joe or Pete remotely, she has to walk to their apartment to find Joe. Did you consciously decide to avoid having the characters use certain technologies or was this  just the way the story worked out?

Yeah, it was on purpose. I avoid certain things like cell phones or the Internet or anything too modern that would seem dated really soon. I was trying to make it feel like it was happening now but with all the sci-fi fantasy elements I felt like throwing in. Excluding all the crazy sci-fi-ery, the technology is probably at the technological level of the early 1990’s because that’s about what I can wrap my head around.

I think a lot about different eras of science fiction and how they portrayed the future. The sci-fi that reflects modern technology seems sleeker and smaller, and it makes sense but it doesn’t look as cool to me. I’m a big fan of the look of big clunky utilitarian 70’s sci-fi. But maybe KC is “20 minutes in the future” of 1992.

Brandon Graham "The Long Goodbye"
Graham’s tribute to Moebius

King City actually reminds me a lot L’Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius and other old European sci-fi/fantasy comics. Moebius recently passed away, can you talk about his influence?

Yeah, Moebius is probably the artist whose work has influenced me the most. Him and Howarth, Shirow and Barlow. I like the Incal all right, but I’m really obsessed with the work he did alone.

I feel like he took a lot of the freedoms American underground comics were doing in the 60s and pushed them to a whole new level adding all kinds of elements from science fiction novels and really creating something new.

I’ve always been so impressed by the joy he seemed to put into everything he did. His comics read like he’s having a great time working on them and the nerve in some of the stuff he pulled off is fantastic. How he’d allow himself to change a character’s look so dramatically in the middle of a story or jump from something completely serious to the ridiculous. I could go on forever about all the elements of his work and his life that have impressed me.

I know you haven’t done graffiti in a long time, but did being involved in the graffiti scene in Seattle as a kid affect the way you perceive the urban environment? Do you think you’d draw cities the same way if you hadn’t been a part of that?

Yeah, I think it definitely affected how I think about cities, certainly the way you interact with your environment when you’re running around drawing on it. It’s nice to be able to fuck with the world around you – changing signs or just writing a response to an ad directly on the ad or having to draw something to fit on the surface you’re drawing on.

Bigger than that, I think graffiti really influenced how I think about the scene I’m in.

Can you expand on that?

The graff writers I was around really pushed the idea that the culture has to be treated with a fair amount of respect. You’re expected to know the history and you have to earn your place in it.

I think the comic industry gets dirty because people make the excuse that it’s a job. For me it’s that if it’s where I’m going to spend my life then I want to make it a scene that I’m proud of.

The pillars of hip hop influenced you when you were younger – what, outside of comics, influences you now?

Still a lot of hip hop, I think in the last couple years the wordplay in rap has really driven a lot of what I put into my stuff.

I think I’ve been really influenced by some of the authors I’ve been reading. Robert Heinlein’s way of rethinking the way future relationships work and his whole out look on life being so different from mine. I’ve been influenced with how William Gibson structures his books and certainly the way Haruki Murakami writes about food and music.

My misses Marian has been a huge influence as well. She’s coming at art from a much more fine art/literary way of looking at it than I was used to. She’s really good at challenging my ideas and helping me think about what it means to be a life long artist and how I talk about art. A big thing I learned from her early on was the idea of talking about the quality of work not from a “this is the best” but rather “this is my favorite”.

Prophet cover by Marian Churchland
Prophet cover by Graham’s wife Marian Churchland

Given the amount of improvisation in your work on King City, how different is it to be a writer, instead of an artist, on Prophet?

The whole approach is pretty different. It puts a lot of the weight on the guy drawing it, plus we go back and forth on the layouts and script. I do the text after the art is done so there’s lots of room to improvise.

I think it uses the same skills that I use in my solo work but it feels like a different animal.

Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

Other than Prophet what are you working on?

My main thing is Multiple Warheads that’ll be coming out later this year from Oni press. It’s a fantasy comic set in a fictional Russia. and I’m putting together an 80 page book of my sketches.

See Also

The Comics Journal’s interview with Graham

Inksuds’ video interview with Graham

Graham on what it’s like working with Liefeld, and the matter of how women are portrayed in comics

Technoccult Interview: Joe Knucklehead Talks About the Occupy Movement, Faux-Populism and More

American Knucklehead

American Knucklehead
Art by Trevor Blake

American Knucklhead has quickly become my favorite podcast. It’s hosted by a local Portland college drop-out turned bowling alley equipment technician who goes by the name of Joe Knucklhead. Joe’s somehow managed to drift from Ohio through the mountain west and on up here to Oregon during his life, and has picked up a lot of observations about the state of the country and the people who inhabit it. Every two weeks or so he speaks his mind – just the perspective of your average American Knucklehead. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for me this week.

Klint Finley: Thanks for taking time to talk to the liberal media Joe. Why don’t you start by explaining who you are and why you started a podcast, for those who aren’t already familiar with your show.

Joe Knucklehead: My name’s Joe and I’m just a regular shmoe that works in a bowling alley in Portland. I started to podcast because it seemed to me that a lot of things were starting to get a little hinky in the good old USA, and I had a few ideas about how us knuckleheads might fix ’em.

You live here in Portland, best known as a place full of anarchists, tree huggers and trust fund hippies. But if I’m not mistaken, you’re from what Sarah Palin once called “The Real America” – Ohio. How different is Portland from the rest of the country?

Well, a lot in someways, and not at all in others. That ambiguous enough for ya? Portland is different in that it seems a lot more tolerant of a wider range of opinions and behaviors. Where I grew up in Dacron, Ohio, it was a pretty homogenous population, and they didn’t take to weirdos too well. If you’ve ever seen Heathers you’ll know what I mean.

On the other hand, knuckleheads abound, and most folks want pretty much the same things; a chance to earn an honest buck, shelter, safety, a future for themselves and their families.

Well, I’ve noticed that if you get outside the inner Portland bubble – which is where I happen to live – and get out to the rest of the city it’s a lot less “hipster.”

Yeah, that’s for sure. There are hipsters and hipsters.

But what do you think? Is there anything to this red state/blue state divide – or urban vs. rural?

Y’know, I’ve seen studies that showed that red state/blue state voting patterns correlate amazingly well with population density. People in higher densities tend to be more “tweetery” – the higher density makes ’em have to deal with a variety of other ideas and opinions. That’s one of the reasons Portland is relatively progressive, I think.

You’ve been talking a bit lately about the Occupy movement. There’s this online counter-movement of conservatives called the “53%” who claim to be subsidizing the Occupy movement via taxes. They say that the protesters need to “stop whining.” What do you think about this – is it a real populist sentiment, or just more divisiveness?

Naw, it’s a total PR ploy. The guy that dreamed it up, Erick Erickson, is a woofer blogger, CNN talking head, and radio talk show host. I’d say he’s been amazingly effective at providing a pointless distraction.

I talked to one of the organizers of Occupy Portland in the last show. He was very eloquent in dismissing the 53% movement as a divisive right-wing talking point.

Well, sure Erickson dreamed it up – but all those people sending in their pictures can’t just be paid actors can they?

Sure, they could be paid actors or just liars. Don’t trust the Internets!

OK – maybe I shouldn’t be so dismissive. It’s pretty easy to whip up anti-Occupy sentiment by resorting to old prejudices and bigotry. Things are scary right now, and people can behave oddly when they’re scared. I’m sure the Occupy movement seems real scary to plenty of Knuckleheads out there.

Yeah, the right wing talking heads have convinced people that the Occupy movement is all about communism. I was just at Occupy Wall Street last week and even I was surprised at how level headed and non-socialist it was. The organizers spent a lot of the time I was there talking about how Occupy to support local small businesses.

Yeah, Occupy Portland seems pretty broad-minded, too. The way the conflict with the Portland Marathon was handled was pretty impressive. They came to an amicable agreement, and both sides were pleased with the extra attention. Synergy, friends and neighbors!

I talked to a league bowler who’s been coming into the alley for years. he ran in the race, and I thought he’d be carping about the “hippies” at the finish line. Instead he said they were really great – applauding the runners as they came in.

It seems they’re really interested in pitching a big tent and creating a platform for people to discuss how best to address the issues we’re facing as a country. But do you think there’s any room for the Tea Party and Occupy to form an alliance, or are they too culturally different? I know the Tea Party has a certain amount of establishment support, from Fox News, the GOP and so on, but it does seem that there’s a legitimate grass roots element there that could lend its support to the goals of Occupy.

I think that’s the next logical step – although sometimes logic don’t play too well in Peoria. Still, I hope that the Knuckleheads in both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement will realize that there’s a lot of common ground, and that the extremists are better off on the margins. Perhaps this group could be mobilized to create one or more new parties – I don’t have much hope for the two parties we have now.

It seems that when anyone starts talking about wanting to improve our economic situation, the right wing response is to accuse those tho speak out against economic injustice as having a sense of “entitlement.” Entitlement has become a dirty word. But really – do you think the average American deserves better than what we’re getting?

There’s a big difference in having a sense of entitlement and wanting a level playing field. It seems that things for the average Knucklehead have gotten worse over the last two or three decades. Wages remain stagnant while the costs of education, healthcare, and so forth have really gone through the damn roof.

OK, we’ve so far in this interview we’ve been pretty friendly to liberals. What message would you like to send the liberal readership? What should liberal elitists like me know about knuckleheads like you?

The main problem I have with tweeters is that they get too focused on pet causes and issues – usually with a maniacal zeal that turns off Knuckleheads like me who aren’t totally on board with that particular pet issues. Right now, I think everybody ought to stick with a wider view. Let’s look at the forest, and we can obsess over individual trees later, huh?

What do you read, watch or listen to keep up with current events?

Everything that the Alaska Quitter does! I usually get my news from mainstream media websites: CNN, Reuters, AP, the Onion. Sometimes I can hoark a copy of the Economist from a friend.

Has anyone approached you about doing a “real” radio show? Have you talked to KBOO?

Hadn’t really thought of it. I did college radio before I got kicked out of Ohio State – it was a blast. That’s what I like about the podcasting – also I don’t have to do something like pull a weekly shift in some godawful 3 a.m.to 6 a.m. slot – the horror, the horror…

Technoccult Interview: Douglas Rushkoff On Kicking the Consensus Reality Habit

Douglas Rushkoff
Photo by Johannes Kroemer

“Are you a practicing occultist?” was the first question Douglas Rushkoff asked me when I met him at the Webvisions conference in Portland, OR. It’s not a typical question for a keynote speaker to ask a journalist he’s just met at a technology event. Then again, Rushkoff is not a typical keynote, and I’m not a typical journalist. After all, I’d just introduced myself as a writer for ReadWriteWeb and Technoccult.

“No, not anymore,” I told him.

“I’m thinking about starting up again. I feel like I’ve been fooled by all of this,” he said, gesturing around the room.

“All of what?” I asked him.

“Consensus reality,” he told me. He went on to talk about the vitality that practicing magicians like Phil Farber and Grant Morrison have. We chatted a bit longer about our common interests, and made an appointment to meet up for an interview. I talked to him about some of the themes of his new book, Program or Be Programmed, and the Contact Summit, which he’s co-organizing with Venessa Miemis and Michel Bauwens. You can find that portion of the interview at ReadWriteWeb. Then we got into stuff that fits better on this site.

Rushkoff is disappointed about how technology is being used today. He describes feeling of computer networks in 1991 as being like taking acid – there was a sense that anything was possible. In Cyberia he wrote that the only people that would be able to handle the new information reality would be psychedelic people and kids. He expanded upon the notion that kids would just inherently get cyberspace in Playing the Future.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Rushkoff admits he was wrong about kids just getting cyberculture. He says recent studies have found that younger Internet users are more likely to fall for hoaxes or believe incorrect things they read on the Internet. Young people are less critical, not more.

Meanwhile, technology has become more about control than about liberation from consensus reality.

“When Video Toaster for the Amiga came out everyone was really excited,” he Rushkoff said. “We believed that we could use it to create deeply alternative states of consciousness using lights and colors and things.”

“Today, those technologies are used by companies like Fox News to make you pay attention to what they want you to pay attention to, or to make your eye fall on a particular ad. Stuff like that.”

But he says if you know how the program works, you’re less likely to be hypnotized by it. “There’s two ways to experience magic,” he says. “And I don’t mean stage magic.” You can either experience it as a spectator, watching a priest or guru. Or you can participate. “Having a guru will only take you so far,” he said. “You have to become the guru.”

But it’s not easy. Rushkoff admits he’s been having trouble participating in magic these days. “My sense is that the suppositional conditioning that I’ve undergone – making a living, raising a kid, keeping a house in working order, paying a mortgage – I’ve expended a lot of energy in less efficient ways,” he said. “I’ve become less trusting of the more subtle ways of influencing the world around me.”

“Part of that is because the stakes are higher,” he said. “I’ve got a real kid, a real wife, a real house, a real bank account, a real mortgage. When it was just me, the stakes were lower. It was just ‘Will I get this book deal?’ and ‘Will I get with this girl?’ Not expending that energy in the conventional ways wouldn’t lead to catastrophic failures.”

He said he hasn’t reached a point where the stakes are lower. “I’ve just gotten to a point where this is no longer working for me. Too many of my day-to-day concerns are not consonant with the way I want to experience the world. It’s about maintaining security, avoiding death and getting things done.”

He says he’s not interested in performing rituals or ceremonies. Instead he said “I want to maintain a greater availability towards pattern recognition. A greater sensitivity to the subtle effects of my actions.”

He wants to spend more of his time and energy connecting with people and “Being and experiencing myself as part of the unfolding of reality.”

So what stands in the way?

“The cultural things in my life and how I relate to them are all fairly rigid – marriage, schools, etc.” he says. “But unless you find an intentional community, it’s hard to feel that balanced. But I feel it can be done.”

I mention that Grant Morrison seems to pull this off. “Yeah, but he’s childless,” Rushkoff replied. He explains that he’s worried that if he goes off the deep end, he’d end up with some fucked up kids. “I don’t know if that’s because of society or what,” he says, pointing out that society has certain expectations from parents and childhoods and your children can end up being the victims of your choices, even if it’s not fair.

I told him that I don’t have kids, but society still limits what I can do. “Right, money is a big limiting factor,” he says.

“It’s like Bill Hicks said,” I replied. “‘You think you’re free? Trying going anywhere without fucking money.'”

“Yeah, not everyone can move out to the woods, and have solar panels and all that. It’s just not sustainable.”

I told him about EsoZone, and how part of my intention for it was to create a sort of urban Burning Man – a semi-autonomous zone that people could bus or bike to, instead of something way out in the desert away from civilization.

“Yeah, and that’s great,” he said. “But it’s temporary. It’s like acid. When you come down, the question is always ‘how can I make this last forever?'”

And it’s at that point that someone from the event came over and told him it was time to get ready to go on stage and we had to part ways before I could get to the other questions on my list about localism, alternative currencies, etc.

But I’ve been thinking about this last point – how do we make these special experiences last forever? Part of the point, I think, of these sorts of shamanistic experiences – whether it’s Burning Man, or drugs, or fever or lucid dreaming or whatever – is that they are temporary but that you can take something of value away from them and apply it to normal, every day life.

I relate to Rushkoff’s experience, even though I’m childless. My day-to-day concerns are meeting my deadlines for work, making sure I have enough money in the bank for rent, my conference travel schedule, the best types of dish washer tablets and whether my wife and I need a new coffee maker. I’m considering buying a subscription to Consumer Reports, and what sort of retirement savings account is best for me.

Did we learn nothing from our experiences that we can bring back into our day-to-day lives? Are there really no options between being square or living on a commune?

I for one choose not to be believe that.

Since this interview, I made it a point to work less and to spend more time with friends. Even before the interview I’d been realizing that I didn’t do much actual socializing on social media. Twitter and Tumblr are participatory, but not particularly social. I use Facebook mostly as a way to send and receive invitations, and as a sort of back-up e-mail system. I want to spend more time connecting with people, and I’m doing my best to do that.

But there does seem to be something else that’s missing. As we parted ways, Rushkoff told me to feel free to e-mail him if I came across anything that I thought would help him in his situation. I chuckled, saying that it’s the exact same situation seemingly everyone is in.

Selections from The Dream Manual Artist Michael Skrtic – Technoccult Interview (Part 2)

Dream Manual Now tell me what I am here for

Selections from the Dream Manual is an “aesthetic grimoire.” On one level, it’s a collection of cut-up texts by Bill Whitcomb (occasional Technoccult guest blogger and frequent commenter) accompanied by collage paintings by Michael Skrtic for each line of text. On another level, it is a collection of excerpts from the employee handbook of the Ministry of Dreams. On both levels, it’s a remarkable and engaging work. As Antero Alli writes in his foreward, “Look at them as meditation portals to the cinematic dreamscapes of the Other Side, or if you prefer psychological terms, the Unconscious (and naturally “other” to the conscious Ego). Or, if you side with the Australian aborigines, the Dreamtime.”

You can learn more about it, and preview it, here. You can buy it from the publisher here or from Amazon.com.

Part one of this interview can be found here.

I found it interesting that everything right down to the typeface in the book is meaningful. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yeah. It’s all about packing. Density is what it is. It’s symbol density. How much can you pack into each page, each image, and each combination? If you start with the text, you got some very plain, random text that Bill assembled Burroughsian-style. He was assembling lots of text ala Burroughs and Gysin. He made these little stanzas that were just starkly beautiful, but were rather plain in and of themselves…they’re just sort of…pronouncements, but if you start with those and you start stacking images, so that the words couple with the images. Some years after the original dream manual was created Bill created the magical alphabet called the Alphabet of Dreams for another purpose. And as I was painting these things, the first paintings, I thought “Well, hmm, the Alphabet of Dreams.” I needed a textual element. Originally, I was thinking about sort of lettering the text comic book style on the paintings and then thought “Wait a minute, if I grab the Alphabet of Dreams which has these runic…each letter has an association.” In typical Bill-manner, each letter has two or three pages of associations, colors, days of the week, and astrological signs. So I thought that if I just transliterated Bill’s original text into the Alphabet of Dreams, I could use that as a pictorial element. It stacked another layer of symbolism on top of just the images coupled to the text. As we built this thing, we just kept packing and packing to point where, as you say, even the fonts Pentagramm and Pentagraf are based on a five-point star. The idea is that all this should act on you in a beneath-the-consciousness sort of way. Indeed, everyone we’ve been able to get to look at it, to play with it, to really read and experience it, has been totally blown away. Most recently, my neighbor who doesn’t read much – he works with the Forestry Committee in Sweden – his family are farmers. He has absolutely no interest in any odd occult stuff, but he read it from front to back and has been asking questions. He thinks this is completely fascinating, so even unlikely people seem to open it and get immediately lost in all the layers of symbols and meaning in it. You’ve got the text layered on there, and there’s that lovely little bit of foreword matter, and some of those strange line drawings that are placed about, and then the final end-piece. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book – that last piece where we listed the image sources. All of these things came from airline magazine, or French fashion magazines while I was travelling through France or postcards from Tokyo. That just ties it to the rest of the world. Finally, as we were assembling the book, Bill wrote these really lovely descriptions of each of the paintings. Not just a dry description, but sort of a poetic description that provides you another route through it. In a way, I think Bill and I were both heavily inspired by the Dictionary of the Khazars. The Dictionary of the Khazars is really a sort of hypertext novel.

That was mentioned in the introduction. When was that published?

You know, it would have to be the early 80’s. I could actually check if you want, but it’s upstairs.

I can look it up online.

I’m sure there’s even a hypertext version these days – a true hypertext version.

Dream Manual I Could Use Your Help

As Antero Alli points out in the foreword, you and Bill avoid the question of what dreams are and what they mean. Do you have an opinion on that?

At different points in my life, I’ve had different answers with different degrees of certainty. I don’t know what dreams are. I’ve had prophetic dreams. I’ve had dreams that seemed just totally weird. As I was learning to speak Swedish fifteen years ago, I used to dream about John Wayne talking to me about Swedish. It’s a combination of prophecy, and processing daily actions, and you mind spinning loose and just relaxing and fantasizing, like watching TV, I think. No. I have no definitive answer about what dreams are.

Since you’ve just finished this seven year project, what are you going to do now or what are you going to do next?

There are two projects I’m working on right now that are totally unrelated or maybe they are, in an odd sort of way. I’m working on a children’s book called “When Gaia Dreams the World.” I’m doing the text and images for that, but that’s sort of in outline stage at the moment. At the same time, I’m working with Bill Whitcomb on the “The Hard-Boiled Tarot.” It’s a Tarot deck which uses modern popular culture genres like Weird Science, True Romance and Thrilling Detective Stories as suits. Like Selections from The Dream Manual, both of these projects deal with the dreams and stories we tell ourselves about the world around us.

Back to part one…

Selections from The Dream Manual Artist Michael Skrtic – Technoccult Interview (Part 1)

Selections from the Dream Manual Try This Experiment

Selections from the Dream Manual is an “aesthetic grimoire.” On one level, it’s a collection of cut-up texts by Bill Whitcomb (occasional Technoccult guest blogger and frequent commenter) accompanied by collage paintings by Michael Skrtic for each line of text. On another level, it is a collection of excerpts from the employee handbook of the Ministry of Dreams. On both levels, it’s a remarkable and engaging work. As Antero Alli writes in his foreward, “Look at them as meditation portals to the cinematic dreamscapes of the Other Side, or if you prefer psychological terms, the Unconscious (and naturally “other” to the conscious Ego). Or, if you side with the Australian aborigines, the Dreamtime.”

You can learn more about it, and preview it, here. You can buy it from the publisher here or from Amazon.com.

Part two of this interview can be found here.

Michael currently lives in Sweden, but is a true citizen of the world. I caught up with him by telephone to talk about the Dream Manual, his relationship with Bill and what he’s working on now. Tune in next week for part 2 of this interview.

Klint Finley: What possessed you to undertake this process of creating a collage painting for every line of Bill’s original Dream Manual?

Michael Skrtic: The Dream Manual appeared first in 1984 or 1985 in a magazine called The Negentropy Express, which was an APA (an amateur press association) by the Society for Creative Thought. I was one of the founding members of the Society for Creative Thought and I was immediately taken with Bill’s original text and the original short little collage things that he did to accompany the text. It sort of followed me around since then. In the early 90s, I had just moved to Stockholm and I was looking for a project. I thought, ah, I know what I’ll do, I’ll colorize Bill’s original collages, so I blew them up and I colorized a couple of pages, and then I got involved with something else. Fast forward to 2003. I had a new studio and I’d just finished painting strange diagrams on the floor to get the mojo right, so I started thinking about the Dream Manual as a possible thing to do. I started looking at it and realized that I actually could – that’s basically it.

I started thinking about all the places I’ve been, collecting collage material. I’ve been collecting collage material for many, many years. Each of the Dream Manual images has touchstones to everywhere I’ve been and all the other images I’ve gathered, so I started putting them together to see where I’d end up. That’s how it started. It took seven years of work from the second time I started. I started painting and spent about six years painting and another year with Megalithica Press getting the book ready for publication. That’s the physical story of the Dream Manual.

Selections from the Dream Manual cover

What states of altered consciousness did you employ while creating the collages and paintings?

None. [laughs] I was drawing on a rich reserve of that. But, painting is an altered state of consciousness. I have a very active style of painting, so I’m standing up and I’m sorting through hundreds and hundreds of images just stacked up in front of me. I’m going through these processes of, in a way, accreting the paintings. I’d step into my studio – which is a magical workspace – and start sorting pictures and to see how they would go with different paintings. Often, I was working on three, or four, or five paintings at once. It’s definitely an altered state of consciousness. It’s a magical state of consciousness. It’s sort of like meditation in motion – I guess that’s how I’d classify it.

Did you have any interesting dreams while creating this work? That you can tell us about?

You know, that’s a hard question because I have really interesting dreams all the time, but nothing really stood out. After I was done, there have been a couple of occasions where I felt, as we were creating the book, we were sort of opening a doorway to the Ministry of Dreams. The Minister of Dreams as a character and the Ministry of Dreams as an imaginary place became quite real during the period we worked on these things. Bill and I would talk three to five times a week during the time when we were working on the Dream Manual project. He’s on the West Coast, as you are, so I would get up at five o’clock in the morning and I’d go paint for an hour and then I’d call Bill and we’d talk for half an hour. I’d have morning coffee with Bill after I’d done my painting and he’d have his tea in the evening with me. Sort of a Nokia moment.

So you were in contact with him every day while you were working on this.

Basically. Four or five times a week. A lot. We’ve actually spent more time over the telephone than we have face to face over the time we known we’ve known each other. We’ve lived together a couple of times in Florida and in Texas, but most of the time we’ve spent with each other has been incorporeal.

Dream Manual Realized

Did you meet through the Society for Creative Thought?

That’s kind of funny. We’d heard about each other for two or three years before we actually met. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida. It was the beginning of the 80s and I had started a group on campus called the Pagan/Occult Discussion Group. We we’re trying stuff out. We were a bunch of people who had read a lot and were experimenting. It started as a discussion group, but that lasted about two meetings, until we said, hey let’s try some stuff. Bill was living in Thomasville, Georgia, about an hour north of Tallahassee, and a lot of the people in the Pagan/Occult discussion group knew Bill. So, for about two or three years, we had been hearing about each other. We finally met at a very strange party and both of us had the same reaction, namely “Wow, I’m supposed to meet this guy?” We were mutually unimpressed with each other.

Shortly thereafter we met again, and this time hit it off. He used to climb through the windows at night on weekends. That was
his favorite mode of entry to the house. He’d get done with work in Georgia and would drive down to Tallahassee and, usually on Friday night about one or two morning, I’d find Bill climbing through my window.

Onward to part two…

Erik Davis – Technoccult Interview

Erik Davis

Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Nomad Codes

Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.

Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?

Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.

One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.

Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.

Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!

Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?

For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.

Goa sunset by Koshy Koshy
Goa sunset, photo by Koshy Koshy

Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?

There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.

I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.

Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?

Keiko Uenishi

I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.

I read “Songs in the Key of F12” around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”

That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.

Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?

Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!

In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?

Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.

What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?

Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.

Erik Davis at Burning Man
Erik lecturing at Palenque Norte camp at Burning Man in 2003

And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?

I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ’em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.

Do you have any parting words before we sign-off?

Keep your minds open!

The American Book of the Dead Author Henry Baum – Technoccult Interview

The American Book of the Dead The American Book of the Dead, part II

In Henry Baum’s novels Golden Calf and North of Sunset he explored the American religion that is Hollywood. His latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, delves into religion more directly – specifically apocalyptic Christianity and New Age ufology. It’s likeThe Stand as written by Philip K. Dick. You can buy the book here or download a free copy here. Henry’s now serializing the sequel online here. He took the time to talk to me about music, writing and fundamentalism.

Klint Finley: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician. I’m actually listening to your soundtrack to The American Book of the Dead for the first time right now, in fact. I’m wondering if you see yourself as more of a writer or as more as a musician, or whether you make that distinction.

Henry Baum: I started as a musician – age nine, guitar lessons. My dad was a fiction writer growing up (now a playwright). So in high school, the way for me to rebel against my parents was in a way to be anti-writing. So I was in punk bands and such. Played in indie rock bands in New York City. My own songwriting was always on the backburner. I always thought of myself as a drummer and fiction writer first, rather than a songwriter. Now, though, I’ve got a copy of Logic and can record any way I want, so I’ve been working on this whole backlog of songs I’ve had through the years. But still…I find fiction writing more satisfying for some reason. I love writing and playing music, but it’s not the thing I wake up thinking about, even if I’ve been playing music a lot longer than writing fiction. It’s less in my bloodstream, maybe.

Introduction by theamericanbookofthedead

How long have you been writing? What made you decide to start after avoiding it for all those years?

In college I lost that teenage rebellion and realized I was fighting the inevitable. I started working on a novel and realized how much I liked it. The novel wasn’t so great, but I at least found that I enjoyed the process. So I’ve been writing since I was 18 – which means, 20 years. Damn. The American Book of the Dead is my sixth novel, though I’ve published three. The first two were practice. One ripping off Richard Yates, who I was once obsessed with. The other trying to be a twenty-something Charles Bukowski. I’ve excised everything that was readable from those two novels and put together two short stories – i.e. 20 readable pages out of hundreds.

You’re serializing a sequel to American Book of the Dead right now, so I take it you think serializing the other novel online was a success? Do you have the novels written ahead of time and then release them piece by piece online, or do you write them as you go?

I actually abandoned serializing the novel almost as soon it was started. I put it up on Blogspot and soon realized I wasn’t ready for it. The site’s still live but what’s there is basically half of the introduction. Instead, I started posting a blog called “God’s Wife” which was part one of a completed novel I wrote about a porn star who joins a religious cult. I posted the porn part – it’s first person, female, and I posted it as if it was being written by a real porn star. People bought it. It makes me sound like a James Frey type, but this was in 2004 – blogs and Blogspot were new, and it was a literary experiment. Some people were pissed when they found out, some were supportive. Now, many years later, I’m ready to start posting something online as it’s written, which I’m trying to make a part of the story – but it’s also kind of terrifying because it doesn’t give me as much time to get used to something before publishing it.

Henry Baum

How much of both books is autobiographical? Have parents at your daughter’s school really confronted you about ABOTD?

Ha, no – that’s totally a projection of my worst worry, as was the chapter in the first novel – about a father discovering his daughter doing porn online. Basically, that confrontation is one I’m having with myself. I’m torn about writing this whole sequence because at some point my daughter’s going to be reading what I wrote. It’s an honest fear though, and something many fathers out there are dealing with, so my self-judgment isn’t totally overwhelming.

I’ve only read the introduction and first chapter of the sequel, but so far it’s much more personal, while the first one is more, I guess, universal. Is that why you decided to do a sequel? To work out more personal rather than universal issues?

A little bit. The first novel is about me in the year 2020, so it’s purely a fantasy about what I could be. Whereas Part II covers this time period. Eventually though it gets pretty far out – and revisits the 2020 character. Part II is going to be much more about the UFO issue: what first contact could do to the world’s psyche. How the world’s psyche could be prepared for that “awakening.” The first novel’s more about far right fundamentalism and the damage that can cause. I always intended it to be three parts, but the autobiographical writers are the ones who appeal to me most – Kerouac, Bukowski, Philip K. Dick’s Valis books. So it’s nice to be writing about who I actually am in real time.

That’s interesting, because yours is one of the few “writers writing about being writers” novels that I actually like – along w/ Dick’s stuff, though it’s not as expressly about writing. I couldn’t make it through Ask the Dust for that reason. Records about how much the recording industry sucks annoy me too.

Wow, thank you for that. I like Fante. To be honest, I’m not sure I need to read Post Office or On the Road ever again. They’ve been formative, but that period’s over. I absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s Valis books because they mix the totally far out with autobiography. I recently read Anne Dick’s memoir (and interviewed her) and it’s pretty remarkable how autobiographical ALL his novels are, which is why he appeals to me more than other science fiction writers. I read Jonathan Lethem recently say that Dick is continuing the legacy of Kerouac more than Asimov. So that’s what I’m attempting to do. Emphasis on the word “attempt.”

Do you have a particular process or ritual for writing?

I pretty much write in an insane trance for three months at a time and then have long spells where I don’t write at all – recovering from the trance. That’s why music’s been helpful to me. On my fiction writing downtime, I often dive back into recording. It’s rare when I go full-on with both at once.

How much do you buy the fringe ideas that have influenced the American Book of the Dead novels? For example, do you really think the world is in need of a mass die-off to curb over population?

It’s a disturbing concept and one I’m still exploring. I look at the recent mosque controversy and wonder, for instance, what would happen if there was UFO disclosure. If people think Obama’s a socialist Hitler terrorist now, they might be turned into David Ickean conspiracy theorists at that point – he’s a reptilian. There’s just so much volatility that seems like it could end in violence. People are crazy – how do we introduce new radical ideas into the culture if a centrist like Obama is seen as a radical? I’m not advocating genocide of any kind – but metaphorically at least, many different types of thought need to die, especially different aspects of fundamentalism. And now it seems fundamentalism is getting a louder and louder voice in the mainstream. It’s like the culture is primed to create mass conflict. So while it’s not something I desire, it does seem inevitable.

It can suck to be prescient sometimes, huh? You started the novel, what, 8 yeas ago? Those seemed like dark times then, but fundamentalist rhetoric just seems to be getting worse and worse.

Sarah Palin didn’t even exist when I started this book. I was fearing the Bush/Cheney cabal and what they were capable. Sarah Palin makes Bush look like, I don’t know, Bill Clinton.

Speaking of Clinton – you’re a little older than me so you might remember this period a bit more clearly than me – was the right so apocalyptic during the early years of Clinton’s presidency? Some elements certainly were, it seems like, reading those old Ron Paul Survival Report issues that were published online during the presidential primary.

And those seem to fit my very young memory of Clinton’s early years – I lived in rural Texas then, but I was only 11, I think, when Clinton was elected.

The far right’s always existed. But 9-11 really blew a hole in people’s last shred of rationality. The vitriol then seemed to be aimed at Hillary Clinton. But post 9-11, post electing a person named Barack Obama, and people have totally lost it. I mean, 9-11 blew a hole open in how I look at the world as well – it was then I started looking at conspiracies, UFOs, mysticism, and everything else that went into this book. I asked, as many people did, What the fuck is going on?

You’ve said that you write because you hope you can change people’s thinking. If you could change society’s thinking in just one way, what would that be?

Whoa, big one. The main thread here I think is the problem of fundamentalism. First two novels I wrote were about Hollywood – which I see as another religion, with the same kind of blind worship. I also mentioned porn up there. Though sexual taboos are a problem, being overly devoted and thinking sex is the only thing that matters isn’t the alternative. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are next in line. I just posted a piece on Reality Sandwich which expressed the possibility of skepticism about 9-11 truth, and people were PISSED. Frankly, I don’t think this kind of true believerism makes any more sense for the fringe than it does for Sarah Palin devotees. So, short answer, the thing I think needs to go away is: blind devotion.

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