Bitcoin vs. the Blockchain – Why It Matters

Bitcoin the technology exists somewhere in between a series of contrasting worlds.

On one side you have the idealists, people whose views are so left-leaning that they would put those of many ACLU members to shame. These people believe in the permeability of the virtual currency’s potential, the possibility that it has to transform vast swathes of industry and society to a something of a more equitable distribution, of the possibility that it might serve the poorest reaches of the world one day, to “bank the unbanked” as they frequently put it.

On the other side of the coin, if you’ll excuse the pun, you have the sort of capitalist whose more libertarian than Charles Koch (assuming such a thing is possible). These veritable right-wingers believe resolutely that the State serves no purpose other than to be disbanded entirely by the populace who it should serve in no other capacity than that of slave labor, that it ought to be every man for himself out there in a constantly adaptive (to ensure only the fittest make it, naturally) strategic warfare for wealth creation where possession is not some fraction of the law but the only item apart from free speech and the right to bear arms that’s written into the constitution protecting their unalienable rights of ownership.

Equally, among those working with the Bitcoin technology are those whose moral values could withstand a full NSA screening and come up clean (and probably have on a number of occasions, too); equally, on the other side of the fence, there are hoards of get-rich-quick profiteers with histories more suspect than Al Capone’s. By conducting the most rudimentary Google search, it’s possible to find swathes of both kinds of individual associated with Bitcoin’s short history in one way or another.

Much of the reason for this extreme contrast ultimately comes down to a duality that is manifest in the nature of the way that the technology underlying Bitcoin is inherently parceled together: on the one side of this duality is the Blockchain, the veritable protocol on top of which and a part of which Bitcoin exists written into code as a unit of transferrable value, and on the other side is a unit of bitcoin itself, the quasi-nouveau-financial instrument with a convenient ascribable value measurement that just about anyone today who has an internet connection can buy and sell.

Jeffrey Robinson’s War

In early 2014, the financial crime author of a famous expose on money laundering published in the early 1990’s and some 25-other books, which have mostly been bestsellers, Jeffrey Robinson, published his most latest hard-hitting expose of a world run by racketeers: Bitcon: The Naked Truth About Bitcoin. Unlike the other books written about Bitcoin, Bitcon was a serious work of investigative journalism in which the author detailed conversations with technologists, chief executives of public companies, everyday Joes and after doing so, came to the conclusion that there was nothing underlying Bitcoin at all as a measurement of financial value. In fact, the book represents the first openly scathing attack on the virtual currency proper to be found in history.

But Bitcon wasn’t an outright attack on all that was associated with the technology, however. While many took Robinson’s attack on Bitcoin to mean that the author was purporting to have no faith in the future of the underlying protocol technology, which is to say, the Blockchain, in fact, the opposite was the case.

For as it happens, by publishing Bitcon when he did, Robinson became the first individual commentator to make a distinction between the technology itself and the virtual currency that enabled it. Before that, most people spoke about Bitcoin and the Blockchain synonymously, a phenomenon that has only just begun to change more recently, no small part as a result of the publication of Bitcon.

To recap, here is what Robinson claimed, straight from the blurb that went with the press for the book at the time it was published:

  •           Punch for punch, the pretend-currency can’t stand toe-to-toe with the non-convertible Cuban peso. 

  •           The pretend-commodity is really just a casino chip for a loaded roulette wheel. 
  •           There are fewer businesses worldwide that “accept” bitcoin than there are piano tuners in Canada. 

  •           There are fewer people using bitcoins to buy goods and services than there are members enrolled in Kuwait Airways frequent flyer program. 
  •           The “blockchain” technology behind bitcoin, is brilliant and will absolutely change the world. 

It seems pretty clear cut what Robinson is saying here: Bitcoin is that ugly, sleazy, get-rich-quick scheme asset class that has no fundamental value, while the Blockchain is an interesting technology that might end up altering the way we fundamentally configure value. Unfortunately for Robinson, it proved much simpler to make this claim than to ensure that its message was properly understood.

The problem was that many of those who believed in the power of a Blockchain protocol were also the same people who were most heavily invested in Bitcoin itself, especially at the point when Robinson’s book came out in 2014, when Bitcoin was trading in the high hundreds of dollars. Further, there was the niggling problem of the fact that Robinson wasn’t talking necessarily about Bitcoin’s Blockchain, but the Blockchain technology in and of itself as a technological architecture.

There was real money at stake in the power of the author’s words, and so the odds didn’t look especially favorable that the money in the virtual currency industry – which revolves for the most part, although less and less so, around Bitcoin – would warm to criticism, no matter how valid it might be. Any argument that sought to interrupt the quick and easy returns of Bitcoin’s posy of amateur speculators whom had spent millions of dollars buying it up was at best, unwelcome news. Ironically, many of the ones who stood to lose the most were those who were tasked with the caretaking of the Blockchain technology – members of the upper echelons of the currency’s official society, the Bitcoin Foundation.

The Bitcoin Foundation was staffed by a few programmers and a bunch of geeky gangsters. Beset by a series of senior management problems, not least of which was the indictment of its Vide-Chairman Charlie Shrem on charges of running a money transfer business in connection with Silk Road, an online narcotics bazaar, as well as the resignation of its Chairman Mark Karpeles after the exchange he owned in Tokyo, Japan, lost over $600m as the result of an alleged hack, there was constant internal bickering over power and publicity among its members, stalling the Foundation’s ostensible goals of providing education and outreach to the wider population about Bitcoin and its potential role in society.

By 2014, when the current President Patrick Murck, also a founding member, was installed, the foundation had blown through most of its cash. Still, despite claiming that it was winding up its education and outreach missions to focus on coding, its key lieutenants stood in firm opposition of Robinson’s argument that the Blockchain was far superior in nature to Bitcoin. Given that the foundation was purportedly returning to its technical role as guardian of the Blockchain, this argument should have been somewhat welcome.

The problem was, predictably, that many of the foundations leaders were themselves heavily-invested in Bitcoin the alternate currency.

It was clear immediately that Robinson’s claim that while the underlying technology had potential, the virtual currency traders were essentially involved in the buying and selling of casino chips which you couldn’t use in Las Vegas, Atlantic City or Macau was nothing short of devastating to those who had spent millions buying up Bitcoin in the midst of its heady rush from a few bucks to over a thousand dollars, especially for those who had no particular technology skills to speak of. After all, it wasn’t the industrial application of the Blockchain they were betting on – it was the financial market pervasiveness of the technology’s primary tradable units of value.

That’s why there had been rumors in circulation as far back as December 2013 that Wall Street was just moments away from getting in on the action, and, conveniently enough, that its biggest monetary institutions were already in the process of designing all sorts of exchange-traded financial products such as listed funds, derivatives contracts, swaps and more which would soon be on sale and thus further power Bitcoin to stratospheric heights. Such a possibility meant a lot more of course to Bitcoin apologists than it did to technologists, since further financial markets interest in the currency would likely favorably impact Bitcoin’s price and liquidity outlook, even if it didn’t expand the overall remit of the Blockchain per se.

The longer Wall Street ignores Bitcoin, the more the purveyors of these rumors become insistent that they are in fact, moments away from being vindicated in their convictions. On March 11, 2015, Barry Silbert, the founder of Second Markets, a NY-based broker-dealer that runs a fund invested in Bitcoin, announced on Twitter: “Blythe Masters, Vikram Pandit, Gene Sperling, Arthur Levitt, Bill Miller, Michael Novogratz … [it’s] getting difficult for Wall Street to dismiss bitcoin.” Silbert seemed to be implying that now that substantial Wall Street pedigrees had bought into the virtual currency’s orbit it was only a matter of time before others followed the same lead.

As with any promotion, however, there was more than a little spin involved in this argument. At the heart of this spin was the simple fact that none of these individuals had likely purchased Bitcoin at all, but rather, were involved in working with the underlying technologies that serviced the virtual currency. Vikram Pandit, the former CEO of Citigroup, and Arthur Levitt, the former Chairman of the SEC, had not even committed any capital themselves at all. The two Wall Street veterans had merely accepted shares in Coinbase, a Bitcoin wallet, in addition to a hefty amount of cash in return for taking a consulting position working with the company as it sought to further improve its trading platform for the virtual currency.

To suggest that Pandit and Levitt were gangbusters on Bitcoin was misleading to say the least. It would be like claiming that bankers couldn’t afford to ignore some arcane biotech company because it had hired McKinsey.

Sure, hiring McKinsey can, and frequently does, help the process of assimilating one’s presence into the wider marketplace, but there is no assurance that this will be the case, and neither does the consulting firm make any claims to that effect in the contract it signs with its customers. Consultants are there to advise companies on the core aspects of their operations, simple as that. Their public endorsement of those operations is a separate thing entirely, and is unlikely to be the case during the period the consulting contract runs for anyway, due to the huge conflict of interest inherent in such an event.

For the first time, many of the same Bitcoin apologists who were bickering over a leadership contest for their virtual mafiosa mansion, the Bitcoin Foundation, as well as other broker dealers turned tech visionaries with whom they cavorted such as Silbert, at events such as the private gathering that was held on an island near the Bahamas in early 2015, could at last unite behind a new common enemy: Robinson.

These characters thus began to circulate a series of arguments deliberately designed to confuse and disarm anyone who sought to put the value of the technology before the sinking value of their personal investment holdings. At the core of these arguments was a central premise: that Bitcoin cannot be separated from the Blockchain, the open source technology on top of which it was written in code, since the two are ultimately part and parcel much the same thing.

The first thing about this argument that stands out is how in so making this defense of Bitcoin, the apologists of the virtual currency unit seem to be admitting that Bitcoin is in fact, in every way inferior to the Blockchain. Otherwise, they would instead counter with a whole lot of evidence to the contrary. If Bitcoin really were superior to the Blockchain technologically, financially, or otherwise, Bitcoin apologists would say things like: “Rubbish, because you can’t spend the Blockchain – Bitcoin, on the other hand, can be spent” or “You don’t know what you are talking about: the Blockchain is a worthless protocol if Bitcoin is not there to facilitate it transnationally-speaking.” But they don’t – because those things are not true.

If Bitcoin were to go to a dollar tomorrow, it’s highly likely someone would buy as many as they could in order to capture a 51% share of Bitcoin and thus be able to rewrite  – or more likely, to safeguard – the protocol technology the Blockchain. This is because the Blockchain has enormous value – in fact, we might say given that there are a maximum of 21 million bitcoins in issuance eventually that it therefore has a minimum intrinsic value of $21m, and probably a minimum intrinsic value of many times that.

This is not the same thing as saying that a bitcoin has a minimum intrinsic value of $1, however. For if bitcoin were sold separately as a unit from the underlying protocol – i.e. if we created a synthetic bitcoin unit and sold that without the connection to the Blockchain (but with everything else being equal, i.e. number of holders, distribution of equity etc.) then no one would every try and argue that the synthetic bitcoin has an intrinsic value at all. In fact, they would say that the synthetic product was some sort of fancy pyramid scheme for the digital age.

Which is exactly what Robinson says that it is!

Robinson is absolutely right – Bitcoin, in and of its own accord, is a legal pyramid scheme, much the same as a share of a shell company or a unit of ownership in land that has no planning permission in place (both of which make for frequent scams, as it happens).      What is meant by the fact that these are legal pyramid schemes is quite simply, that none of these assets, including Bitcoin, have any intrinsic value.

To say that Bitcoin has the same intrinsic value as the Blockchain protocol which underlies it, is to make the same egg-before-chicken statement that the a share of a shell company with no assets has the same intrinsic value as the assets that will get sold into it tomorrow, or that the parcel of land has the same intrinsic value as the shopping mall that will be developed on it once planning permission has been granted. None of these qualify when it comes to meeting the criteria for something having “intrinsic value” which is:

Intrinsic [in-trin-sik, -zik] adjective – belonging to a thing by its very nature;

Value [val-yoo] noun – monetary or material worth, as in commerce or trade.

Bitcoin does not have any value or monetary worth in terms of functioning inside a commercial transaction, since it’s very nature is separate from the Blockchain. This is because Bitcoin is the product of the Blockchain. This does not mean it is the same thing, any more than it means that you are the same thing as either of your parents. You bear resemblances to both your parents, but that doesn’t mean because I made $1 million with your father I should do business with you and assume I will make an equal amount of money (once again, many a man has tried this before and learned the hard way throughout history!) In the same way, assuming that Bitcoin is the same thing as the Blockchain is foolhardy.

The reason for this is simple: Bitcoin in and of itself cannot do the same things or perform the same tasks as can the Blockchain. Ultimately, we are only worth materially speaking – be we humans, technologies or properties – the sum of the tasks we can perform that have a definite profitable outcome.

We use this basis of value to calculate pretty much every asset there is in the world. For instance, in order to value a hotel, we would work out how much each room will rent out for per night, multiply this number by the number of rooms, and then multiply this number by the percentage of those rooms that will be likely to be rented out on the night(s) in question, then again by the number of nights, and finally, we discount this gross figure by the amount of money during the same period in which the calculation is being done that we could have made investing in risk-free (i.e. US Treasury) securities. The result, usually annualized and multiplied by anywhere from 2 – 30 years, depending on the hotel in question, is the value of the building and the business for sale.

The same calculation is done for aircraft, for securities, for venture capital investments … the value of everything in finance is worked out this way (give or take non-material variations according to the asset being calculated).

With the Blockchain I can do this equation. I can work out the many ways in which the protocol can be used to make money – including, ironically, the basis for the issuance and sale of a digital currency – I can add this all up together over a period of time and discount that gross figure by the risk-free rate. I can then add a multiple to that sub-total which I believe reflects a fair value premium for the growth exponent in the Blockchain technology’s income curve.

With Bitcoin however, I am lost if I try to perform the same calculation, for Bitcoin has no use – it serves no financial purpose at all – other than as a speculative unit of value which is at best subject to a wild guess about its role in the future application of the Blockchain technology (there is none – the Blockchain produced Bitcoin, and thus it could be used to – and is used to – become the basis for a copycat electric currency if everyone got tired of Bitcoin and someone wanted to have another go at pumping a unit of hypothetical value up skywards).

There is simply no way to say that Bitcoin and the Blockchain are synonymous, just as there is simply no way to say that both have intrinsic value. One does, and the other doesn’t – it’s as simple as that.

Note however: This does not mean that Bitcoin or any other form of digital currency unit is worthless, of course. They may be worth a huge amount of money outside of conventional financial modelling techniques. art is; so is wine. And so are diamonds, judging from the amount that my wife’s wedding cost! These items are worth what the end consumer is willing to pay for them. Simple as that. Bitcoin may well be the digital version of these assets – it is not for me to decide whether that is or is not the case (it probably is, for the moment, anyway.)

Either way, all of this was clearly outlined in Robinson’s book Bitcon, but constant  misdirection in the form of statements designed to confuse and deceive investors who understood little about the technological composition of either made by those heavily invested in Bitcoin, the asset class, made sure that Robinson was labeled the poster boy for the anti-technological currency movement. On the contrary, Robinson himself said repeatedly in Bitcoin in one form or another, and explicitly in the form of the press release prior to publication that the Blockchain would “change the world” despite the fact that Bitcoin was worthless. It doesn’t get much stronger than that in terms of endorsing a technology or product … or anything, for that matter.

This dichotomy, that Bitcoin is somehow separate from the Blockchain is what struck me as the first meaningful contribution to the debate about the future of the virtual currency that had to date been made. Then I travelled to the Philippines and met a guy named Ron Hose for a story I was writing for the Daily Dot.

Hose is a graduate of Cornell’s Bachelor and Master’s programs in technology, where he graduated top of his class both times. Shortly after, Hose went on to found a company called Tok-Box, which managed to raise around $25m in the middle of the worst financial crisis in recent history (an achievement in and of itself). Three years later, Hose and his partner – who went on to found another technology company in Russia worth millions – cashed out for a cool $30m or so. After that, Hose co-founded Innovation Endeavors, one of the largest venture capital funds worldwide, whose backers include Google chief executive Eric Schmidt. This was all before Hose turned 30.

Hose is one of those guys in other words who come under the category of Type A overachiever. Originally from Israel, Hose decided after he sold Tok-Box to venture away from home almost an equal distance in the other direction to take on an even bigger task; that of disrupting payment transfer monopolies such as Western Union and Money Gram, which is the point at which I came into contact with him.

Hose has an office in a shabby building in the middle of one of the less glamorous streets in the back of downtown Manila, and sits in a 20 square foot room with two other developers for most of the day while his staff works out of a room about ten times the size. In other words, Hose is not your standard Silicon Valley show-off multi-millionaire who sits at the top of some sky rise with a view of the Bay. In fact, if you met Hose randomly at some event, you might even mistake him for the recent Cornell grad that he is, although without the seven-figure bank balance.

Hose and his team showed me their product, which is a payment application that you can download onto your cell phone. At the moment, the application uses Bitcoin, as it is connected up to the Blockchain protocol by way of it issuing and receiving payment transactions for its customers that way. But ask Hose if he’s worried about the demise of Bitcoin, and he tells you point-blank that he doesn’t even know what the price of the virtual currency is.

“I don’t care about Bitcoin at all,” Hose told me frankly. “I can’t even remember what it is right now, whether it’s up or down, in fact. We use Bitcoin at the moment because it’s the easiest available method of transacting across the Blockchain, but it wouldn’t be that hard to use any number of other things either.”

At first I was skeptical, especially since there were so many huge holders of Bitcoin that claimed similar sorts of things. If Coins was using Bitcoin in order to enact a payment transaction, then surely, even if momentarily, I asked him, the customer cares about the price of Bitcoin, since that is where their money is being held.

Hose explained that the minute someone buys Bitcoin so they can send it to a family member or whoever somewhere else in the country (or in Thailand, as it happens, where the company has a separate office) the rate is fixed at the receiving end for the sender. Who then, is assuming the financial risk for the interim period before which the receiver converts the Bitcoin back into local currency and cashes out?

“No one,” Hose explained. “Every single transaction done in Bitcoin is hedged the moment it is made by a process of automation carried out separately with a financial broker. There is zero exposure to Bitcoin, or this whole technology would never be able to work at all.

This sounded like the sort of thing I had read in Bitcon, where Robinson had interviewed multiple technologists who all claimed that while they were happy to use Bitcoin for the time being, they were less sure of whether it was a very useful medium of exchange, payment or otherwise other than that it made for a useful technological proxy for the Blockchain, inside which the core services were ultimately being rendered.

And so it was that, right under the nose of the same proponents of Bitcoin, accepting donations even in Bitcoin, a developer called Vitalik Buterin began to write another Blockchain completely. According to Hose, this Blockchain may be even more suitable than Bitcoin’s in assisting with services such as those carried out by his company, since its protocol is specifically designed to be versatile, as opposed to merely open, in nature.

If it is going to vanish from the face of the earth, probably one of the best chances of that will be as a result of the rise of a more intrinsically-valued digital currency from a more robust protocol such as that of Etherium. That’s certainly what Etherium’s creator seems to think is a possibility.

“There’s a thousand different ways to design a Blockchain and those ways will keep improving,” said Vitalik Buterin, the 20 year-old wonder child who developed Etherium, which is a separate competing Blockchain to that which Bitcoin runs on top of. “There’s really no reason to think that the current one [that powers Bitcoin] is going to win, especially since it’s just the first try at doing something like this.”

Which is also what Robinson ahs been hammering home for around 9 months – that any financial corporation or otherwise that wanted to make use of the same sort of technology as Bitcoin’s Blockchain does could just invest in developing their own proprietary, improved successor version.

Given that such a Blockchain would be specifically applicable to performing a service function, such as paying for a cab, for instance, it would not be likely to have the same ponzi-like currency scheme factoring out of it as Bitcoin does from its Blockchain.

“With the Bitcoin Blockchain there are two things that can be done inside it; you can make payments inside of it or it stores data and the data just stays there inside it,” Buterin explained. “Going from there, there are a couple different directions in which the Blockchain can improve. People talk about the Blockchain as if there is just one, but that’s basically just [Bitcoin’s] marketing. There are several alternatives.”

When you put it like that, it certainly seems plausible that one of these alternative Blockchains will ultimately prevail in the end, for rarely is the case that the principle technology that’s developed is the one to become the ubiquitous driving force behind a whole industry’s operations. More commonly, it takes a few attempts by engineers to get the perfect mix of required inputs right, and then only after that point can an innovation scale as a platform upon which the world can use it as a blueprint to build skywards. If it one day becomes a matter of “Bye, Bye Blockchain”, as Buterin says is inevitably the case it will be, then Bitcoin’s days are numbered even now. For not even the most ardent Bitcoin fan could effectively argue that its 21 million unit distribution is pervasive enough to withstand the onslaught of the introduction of a better underlying technology. That would be like saying that the newspaper in printed form was unaffected by the rise of the internet.

In which case, it’ll be a weird vindication of sorts for Robinson, whose enemies will finally be silenced by the power of the underlying protocol. The irony that Bitcoin’s Blockchain was never quite powerful enough to do anything other than give rise to a currency that was ultimately used against its own ends will ring true throughout tech history as one of the great tales of never counting virtual chickens before they’ve hatched into real-world effects.

For Robinson, it’ll be strange sort of victory, certainly, for it’ll be a silent one that passes by more or less unnoticed and uncelebrated. It will likely only be some day in the far future when credit comes to him fact, when it’ll be written about as an indelible part of the history of the evolution of digital payment systems, and someone will get told by one of their grandchildren, with some degree of a sigh,

“We’ve gotta write an essay on the history of digital payment systems tonight for Economics class,” to which it will occur to them to reply: “Well, you ought to mention Jeffrey Robinson. He was one of the ones who took the bad guys to task in the very beginning. Go and read Bitcon.”

The Future of Bitcoin

For Bitcoin apologists too, it’s likely to be a weird process of value evolution that lies ahead. For unlike in the case of most financial units, in Bitcoin’s case, success or failure probably will be determined by the level of civilianship that dominates the virtual currency world more than anything else. As we have observed already too, Bitcoin’s value lies fundamentally outside the standardization of most modern financial instruments.

In a world where the bulk of the focus and attention has predominantly been focused on the individual, the act of community participation – and sacrifice for the greater good of the society that forms the surrounding environment – will be harder to make, but ultimately may also be the only way in which to be rewarded too.

It was after all, purely good civilianship that produced Bitcoin. Satoshi could have sought to monetize the opportunity more cynically – but the game of being a good citizen who has an interesting product to offer a market in a straight-forward, open way, paid off.

With so much choice and so many ways in which to go wrong so young springing up around us all the time, it is to our kids we will have to look to teach without controlling, to love without wanting. Thus the real heroes in our society will the ones who manage to straddle that fine divide between being a good person and doing good things.

This is the real reason that Bitcoin is significant. For it doesn’t matter whether Bitcoin succeeds or fails. The seed it has planted among a whole generation of people is enough to have sparked a movement outside the reversal-to-the-mean of mediocre and instead offered a taste for not-entirely-calculated risk and its associated rewards that will, hopefully, have a positive impact on millennials in a way which the generation that came before them, GenX, was never afforded. For GenX arguably lost out in terms of intellectual competence more than any other recent category of people in history as a result of having no particularly thrilling entryway (most of them were caught off-guard by the internet, and were not the architects of it). GenX’s great tragedy is that its one significant achievement was the liberalization and self-satisfied abuse of the credit markets.

Bitcoin stands in the corporate night of the present era of cynical public relations campaigns and copycat technologies overseen by simple-minded, mediocre management teams like the beacon of a magnificent lighthouse, showing the way to a future and a possibility that collectively is greater than the sum of its inputs: a future where the workplace is composed less of the cynical and rational deduction of the easy-to-belittle, and more of the ingenuity and civilianship of a brilliant, intellectually-charged spaceship headed out to find what’s not yet there.

The key question is not what the spaceship will find, or even if the spaceship is the best possible method of transport beyond our solar system. That is to miss the point entirely. The key point – and what, in turn, Bitcoin’s movement represents to many of the youngest working people alive now – is that there is a spaceship up there above the earth in the first place, heading out towards undiscovered galaxies, exploring new territory and breaking old conventions trying to further the collective consciousness of earth’s inhabitants.

There may be a fraud or two in it – chancers hawking fake last-minute seats on the rocket, and no doubt a few suckers who will fall for those tricks. There may also be a few false starts: a displaced launch lug, a faulty nose cone payload that won’t open properly.

But the fact that it’s there in the first place is a symbol for many. It’s the same symbol that the Greeks ascribed to statues of the gods that stood naked before Temples, that the Medieval Europeans ascribed to Church domes depicting lifelike images of the Virgin Mary and that the industrialists ascribed to factories and the science that went into their operations: it’s the feeling that something great is about to happen, that the world is on the verge of a new breakthrough made of some magnificent insights. It’s the realization that once again, after a period of relative intellectual corruption, knowledge is touching the surface of humanity. It’s …

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