Saturday, October 13, 2018

New "Ancient Wisdom" Alexa skill available now!

If you've been enjoying my ancient wisdom posts every day on Facebook and have either an Alexa-enabled device or just the Alexa skill on your smartphone, You can now listen to even more quotes in my FREE educational Alexa skill "Ancient Wisdom" that was just published this morning! I compiled over 100 quotes from ancient Greek and Roman sources that were selected because I thought they provide guidance for issues we face today. I hope to add sources from ancient Egypt, ancient Persia, and ancient China as time permits - after all, I am retired!

Today's example:

Young boy portrayed as Hercules choking Hera's serpent 
Roman second half of 2nd century CE photographed
at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

For just as children tremble and fear all In the viewless dark, so even we at times, dread in the light, so many things that be, no whit more fearsome, than what children feign, shuddering, will be upon them in the dark. This terror then, this darkness of the mind, not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light, nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse, but only Nature's aspect and her law. Lucretius. The Nature of Things. Book 6.
Although the current Alexa app is designed for voice-only devices, I hope to eventually modify it for the Echo Show and Echo Spot and include the images as well.

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dr. J LED mini-projector provides economical solution to history presentations

This is a cross post from my blog "Technology Times and Trials." A technology resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

If some of you, like me, are asked to present information periodically that includes images and video and no longer have access to institutional multimedia equipment, you might be interested in this 3 pound Dr. J micro-projector measuring just 7.8 x 2.7 x 6 inches that is capable of producing projected output of 170 inches (diagonally). 

In September, I will be attending my 50-year class reunion and offered to produce some music videos of my classmates working and having fun over the past 50 years as well as a salute to our class veterans.  But the Historical Museum where we will be gathering owned no projection equipment. Since I'm retired, I also no longer have access to a university projector. It was a bit of a dilemma until I saw this unit advertised as an Amazon Lightning deal for only $60. (It is regularly priced at $98.99 - still a bargain!) It was very positively reviewed, although for the price, I quite honestly, wasn't expecting a lot. When the projector arrived, though, I was very pleasantly surprised.

The unit is solidly built and comes with a remote as well as having adjustment controls on the projector itself. I had copied my videos to a flash drive and inserted it into the USB port then turned on the projector and selected USB as my video source using the setup menu. Then I navigated through the flash drive folders to the folder containing my videos and selected the one I wished to play. Pressing the source button again opened the video in full screen mode and played all videos in the selected folder.  I was quite pleased with the color reproduction and thought the sharpness was also quite good as well.

The unit has built-in speakers, a big plus for such a compact unit, and they put out a decent amount of sound.  If you need more volume for a larger room, you can use the included RCA cable to connect external speakers.  Quite honestly, I was totally amazed at the quality of the output for such a small price. When I was an education technologist before I retired ten years ago I had to spend over a thousand dollars to get the results this LED micro-projector produces.

In short, this little gem offers great portability, is easy to set up and adjust, and has very good sharpness and color reproduction for a terrific price!  (No, I don't work for this company or receive any commissions for publicizing it.)  I just might go forth and produce more presentations on the Roman Empire for local groups now that I have a way to share them.  After all, if the SAT advisory board follows through with the proposal to eliminate teaching history before the mid-1400s in U.S. AP courses, someone needs to do it!! The legal and social constructs of the classical world were used to form the foundation on which our republic was built!

Note: The projector shipped with an HDMI cable which is great for those with a newer laptop or other HDMI-compatible devices.  However, if you are using an older laptop as your content source you will need your own VGA cable and audio patch cable to connect your laptop's VGA port and headphone jack to the projector's VGA port and AV jack as they are not provided. Unless your files require software on your laptop or you are demonstrating software, though, I recommend copying your images or videos to a USB flash drive and eliminate the hassle of connecting all the cables for laptop projection. 

This unit is optimized for video output and is not recommended for text-heavy Powerpoint presentations.  However, I could still read projected text with the unit properly focused. Instead, I use a slideshow program called ProShow Gold by Photodex to combine my images with a soundtrack, add transitions, and output a video file in my desired file format.
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Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Gertsman and Rosenwein

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

Normally, I review books focused on the ancient world but I received an email from Cambridge University Press asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of their new release "The Middle Ages in 50 objects." Even though the Middle Ages is not the period of my personal research, I still enjoy examining art and artifacts from the Middle Ages when I photograph the permanent collections of of the museums I visit, so I agreed to give it my attention.

As promised, the book was lavishly illustrated with full page color photos of the artifacts selected for inclusion.  I was surprised that all of the objects came from a single museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, though.  Most world-class museums have galleries of medieval art so I was not expecting a single museum not devoted to that historical period, to have the breadth needed to encompass an entire age.

But Professor Elina Gertsman of Case Western Reserve University and her co-author, Professor Barbara Rosenwein of Loyola University Chicago, have certainly selected objects that are representative of their four focus areas, The Holy and the Faithful, The Sinful and the Spectral, Daily Life and Its Fictions, and Death and Its Aftermath.

Most objects are Christian-themed, but several artifacts from Islamic regions are also included.  I was particularly surprised to find a sculpture dated as early as 280-290 CE to be the first object discussed, though. I usually consider the Middle Ages a period from the fifth to fifteenth centuries CE, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and lasting into the early Renaissance.  But, as a scholar of the ancient period, I was, of course, anxious to read what these distinguished art historians had to say about the piece.

Jonah Cast Up Roman 280-290 CE. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The piece, entitled Jonah Cast Up, was a bit baffling to me. Most of us are quite familiar with the tale of Jonah being swallowed by a a huge fish (New International version, King James version) or dag gadol - great fish (Hebrew). But here, the "fish" has the head and forepaws of a wolf, typically symbolic of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, the male figure has the hair style and beard often seen in Roman art depicting Jupiter.

The authors, too, recognized the resemblance of the Jonah figure to Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon).

"A strong muscular man with an abundant beard and wild curly hair, Jonah dives out from the jaws of the beast, arms up, the movement of his torso echoing the direction of the sea creature's pricked up ears and scrunched snout. The broad-shouldered Jonah, with his copious curls and robust arms, is reminiscent of images of Zeus, the Greek god of Thunder and the ruler of Olympus."

But they say nothing about the symbolism of the wolf other than to observe that the great fish of the Jonah story has sometimes been interpreted as a sea monster (in later Greek translations of the scriptures).

I thought, perhaps, the archaeological context could provide additional insight.

The authors point to collateral finds as possible evidence of a patron with Christian leanings.
"This sculpture seems to have formed part of an ensemble.  It was supposedly found buried in a very large jar alongside six paired portrait busts, an image of Christ the Good Shepherd, and three other representations of Jonah in prayer, under the shade plant, and being swallowed by the sea monster. The patrons therefore appear to have had Christian leanings."

The dating appears to be tentative and the authors speculate whether it was produced a little later than the date given, perhaps during Diocletian's persecution of Christian believers in 302 CE.

Portrait head of Diocletian photographed at the
Art Institute of Chicago by Mary Harrsch © 2016
"Soldiers were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face discharge; Christian churches were destroyed; books of scripture were confiscated and burned; and Christians were stripped of their rank if they did not conform, making them liable to torture or execution. Whether carved before the Great Persecution or at some point during it, the marble image of the rebellious Jonah - not only saved from drowning but also finding himself cast safely ashore - must have been exceptionally reassuring."

I would offer a slightly different interpretation as another possibility. I think the sculpture could have been produced a little later still, during the reign of Constantius II.  Although seemingly an image representing the Jonah story, I think it could have been carved to represent the expulsion of paganism from the Roman Empire itself.  That would account for the human figure's resemblance to Zeus (Jupiter) and for the wolf's head on the sea monster's body - still probably reassuring to a Christian-leaning patron who may have suffered during the Great Persecution.

I definitely agree with the author's summary conclusion, however.

"Jonah Cast Up stands as a perfect witness to the cultural and religious complexity of the late third [and early fourth] century."

I also found a gilt-silver arm reliquary of the Apostles, circa 1190 CE, from lower Saxony interesting too. Although I view the veneration of bits of human corpses to be a macabre practice, I have admired beautiful reliquaries, strictly from an artistic perspective, at a number of museums I have visited.  As an ancient scholar, though, the thing I found really intriguing was the authors' observation that often reliquaries do not house the body part they represent, although this one did.  It seems deception has plagued religions for thousands of years as I have read that ancient Egyptian votive mummies depicting various animals rarely contain the animal they represent either.

I found the background information on a 14th century French ivory mirror case depicting a couple playing chess quite eye-opening. In fact, the authors' description of some of the symbolism represented by this particular mirror and chess as a metaphor for courtship made me blush!

"Such mirrors were popular in French and German wealthy households, surviving in large numbers. The subjects carved on their cases were almost always secular, some featuring the God of Love, others the Castle of Love Under attack still other scenes of courtship and narratives from romances.  The game of chess, very popular in medieval literature, was particularly favored for mirrors, which were given as gifts and often formed part of a trousseau."

I'll definitely have to keep my eye out for more of these little marvels in my museum travels!

I found the authors' background information and symbolic interpretation of the selected artifacts in "The Middle Ages in 50 Objects" quite fascinating and highly recommend this text.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Onslaught by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

As I began listening to Anthony Riches' "Retribution" today, I realized I had not reviewed its prequel "Onslaught", the second in "The Centurions" series about the Batavian Revolt during the year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE. So, let's remedy that now.

Toward the end of The Centurions Book 1, "Betrayal", a sizable portion of the Batavian cohorts has been sent south from Germania Inferior to fight the forces of Marcus Salvius Otho, a young Roman aristocrat who has instigated the assassination of the short-lived emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba and now claims the purple for himself. The legions guarding the Rhine frontier, who initially marched south to fight Galba, are unwilling to accept Otho either, since they declared their own commander Aulus Vitellius emperor before hearing of Otho's coup. Now they plan to enforce their will regardless of which man the weak Roman senate ordains.

The forces clash violently at Cremona with Vitellius' forces victorious due in no small part to the ferocity of the Batavians.  As a reward, Vitellius orders the Batavians to return to their homeland.

But then word comes Titus Vespasianus, a general who has personally fought beside the Batavians in Britannia and even owes his life to them, has declared his intention to wrest control of the empire from Vitellius' tenuous grasp.  So, Vitellius changes his mind about sending the Batavians home to their prince.

This poses quite a dilemma for the Batavians as they have no real personal allegiance to Vitellius and they also know the Rhine legions he commands are determined to eliminate their prince Gaius Julius Civilis for his apparent collusion with Gaius Julius Vindex in an ill-fated revolt to support Galba a year earlier. Then, word leaks out that Vitellius plans to break up the Batavian cohorts and distribute them across his legions to blunt any threat they may present in the future.

Meanwhile, Civilis meets with envoys from Vespasianus including Pliny the Elder, and agrees to begin a rebellion to distract Vitellius and prevent him from ordering the remaining Rhine legions south to meet Vespasian's forces. Historically, this may have occurred, but is not specifically stated in any ancient sources.

Civilis knows it is a dangerous game he plays as Rome has always ruthlessly punished any tribal group who attempt to throw off the Roman yoke.  How far can he really trust Vespasian or even his own countrymen knowing he, himself, does not go unchallenged for leadership?  Much hinges on arrangements he has made with a long-time tribal opponent, Claudius Labeo. The plan is kept secret from even Civilis' closest kinsmen. Civilis wonders whether he can restrain his warriors from claiming Roman battle trophies and accept the defeat and plunder of Roman auxiliaries and fellow Germans instead.  Furthermore, for the plan to succeed, Civilis needs the rest of the Batavian cohorts now poised between returning to Batavia and continuing south with the forces of Vitellius.

His choice apparently made, Civilis sends a secret messenger to the Batavians in the south asking them to ignore Vitellius and continue their march north to join their countrymen and the game of thrones begins in earnest.

The grisly battle scenes, as is always the case with Riches' tales, keep you riveted to the action and guessing as to what Prince Civilis has up his sleeve. The characters are vibrantly drawn and  you can't help but feel empathy for them as they desperately battle their former comrades for the continued freedom of their tribe and even life itself.

I found myself still more partial to the Batavians than the defenders of the "Old Camp" and didn't really find a new Roman centurion called Aquilius particularly appealing either due to his brutal nature. But I know such characters really crank up the tension and realism of the narrative.

I am anxious to continue the Centurions' trilogy with "Retribution" and highly recommend this masterful series.

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Review: A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity by Keith Hopkins

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch

When I was researching the Roman Empire's financial crisis of the late 3rd century and subsequent embrace of Christianity as part of the solution, I found a wealth of information in the late Keith Hopkins book "A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity."  Before his death in 2004, I had often admired Hopkins insight shared in a number of television documentaries on the Roman Empire. 

Although Hopkins is mostly remembered as a professor of ancient history at Cambridge, he also served a lectureship at the London School of Economics. Since my research was going to cross over from history to economics, I was excited to find his book, originally published in 1999.

But the book, like the man, was quite unconventional. Instead of a purely historic treatise on the rise of Christianity, it began with a fictional tale of time travel to first, ancient Pompeii, and then to ancient Egypt, to give the reader a taste of other competing religions during the formative years of Christianity's development.  Although I was really more interested in facts than fantasy, I enjoy time travel tales so was not dissuaded from continuing to read on.

Then, I came upon a very long third chapter and it was literally stuffed with the background information and sociological interpretation I was truly looking for.  I marked each usable passage with purple sticky tabs and soon that portion of the text was fluttering with purple markers.
Hopkins, a sociologist, drew parallels between the ancient Christian "revolution" and the political upheaval resulting in the establishment of communist China.

" Rome as in China, the veneer of virtuous prescription disguised a multitude of sins; the church grew steadily richer, and more corrupt; Christian rigorists pursued mad ends with obsessional fervor; bishops borrowed the oppressive powers of the state to bully, exclude, and even execute doctrinal rivals. "

Hopkins goes on to point out Christians viewed themselves as the fervent elect, chosen by God, and linked together by their difference from and radical rejection of others. 

"...once in alliance with the state, Christian leaders exploited their newfound powers in order to impose single versions of correct belief, through votes by universal councils of bishops.  Almost inevitably, once its influence and power was buttressed by the state, the church also became in part a business, distributing charity, patronage, privilege, and immortality."

How I interpreted this information and dozens of other passages in relation to the financial crisis of the Roman empire and the "conversion" of the Roman Emperor Constantine can be read in my paper, "Did Financial Exigency Drive The Roman Empire to Embrace Christianity?"

Hopkins spends the rest of his text examining Christian literature, comparing different versions of the gospels, and evaluating Christianity's turbulent coexistence with Judaism and paganism.

If you are looking for an account of purely historical events, this book, with the exception of Chapter Three, may disappoint.  But, if you are open to exploring religious roots as a journey, you may find Hopkins unorthodox approach thought-provoking.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Time Travel Rome Mobil App: The Entire Roman Empire In Your Pocket!

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

This morning I received word that a new travel app entitled "Time Travel Rome" was now available for Apple and Android smartphones. This app is said to describe every significant ancient Roman city, fortress, theater, or sanctuary in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa! Actually, I've been told the application includes over 3,000 sites and there are plans to add another 1,000 sites later this year.

I downloaded it and was amazed by the depth of information included in it. It not only includes location information including GPS coordinates to aid in locating each site but offers the related Wikipedia information in either English or French, a proprietary article pointing out site features like museums or visitor centers nearby, and even passages from the ancient texts where the site is mentioned. 

For example, I looked up Alesia and the extant remains are described including a building associated with the city's metalworkers named after a minor Celtic god, information about the statue of Vercingetorix erected there, as well as the presence of a large museum, a visitors' center and Roman reconstructions including a full-sized 100m section of Caesar's fortifications. It also mentions guided tours that are available throughout the year. 

The ancient text section offers passages from Diodorus Siculus, Julius Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Livy's History of Rome, Paterculus' Roman History, Strabo's geography, Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Plutarch's "Life of Caesar", Tacitus' "The Annals", Florus' "Epitome of Roman History," Polyaenus' "Strategems" and Dio Cassius' "Histories" where Alesia is mentioned. The app includes a library of hundreds of complete ancient texts in English covering history, poetry, geography, and mythology.

One of the most useful features is a filter function that lets you filter sites by contents. If you want to see sites with extant amphitheaters, you can filter for that. If you want to see sites with remnants of aqueducts, you can filter for that. Sites are ranked from 0 to 5 stars according to their historical importance and their visual interest for a visitor and can be filtered for that rating as well.

The App allows you to create custom lists of places to use as your private guide, rate the ancient sites you visit, and navigate using the shortest route. The app also provides access to social media so you can share your travel experiences with friends and family. Basic functionality is free. The complete experience is $7.99.
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Friday, July 20, 2018

Julius Caesar Reborn!!!

A couple of months ago I posted an article about my efforts to create history-themed skills for Alexa-enabled devices. As I explained, Alexa is Amazon's artificially intelligent voice-activated virtual assistant. I have been working on recreating Gaius Julius Caesar so Roman history enthusiasts can talk with him about Roman culture, his military career, and people he knew during his lifetime.

At the end of June, Amazon approved my new FREE skill "Caesar's Ancient World."  It is available in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and India for Alexa-enabled devices and the free Alexa app for smartphones. Initially, I built what is commonly referred to as a "chatbot" or what Amazon refers to as a "social bot" that could answer whatever questions you wished to ask. But, Amazon did not like an open-ended question and answer session so I had to redesign Caesar and apply a more traditional branching menu with predefined topics. Still, I have him explain historical events from his perspective across a broad array of topics including his childhood, his victories, his defeats, Roman institutions like the senate and the dictatorship, Roman entertainments like chariot racing and gladiatorial combat, Roman marriage, Roman adoption, Roman punishments, what it's like to experience a Roman triumph, and his opinions on people he knew during his lifetime. He'll even tell you what he liked to eat (based on a couple of delicious-sounding recipes from Apicius' cookbook!)

I plan to add more to his memory as time permits. But, at least for now, I hope you will find an audience with him interesting.

Many of us who are interested in the ancient world also enjoy viewing museum exhibits. Many major museum have Twitter accounts and tweet information about upcoming exhibits, special presentations, and other activities they offer. However, plowing through your Twitter stream can be daunting looking for timely information. So, I have created a series of skills that group tweets of major museums together and read them to you using Alexa. The first skill I designed was called simply "Museum Tweets." It is a skill that provides the latest tweets from major museums across the United States divided into East Coast, Midwest and West Coast regions. It is dynamic and the contents of the skill change daily based on how often different museums post news to Twitter.  Since I have published "Museum Tweets", I have also developed and published museum tweet skills for the United Kingdom (United Kingdom Museum Tweets), Canada (Canadian Museum Tweets), and Australia (Australian Museum Tweets), too.

So, if you love museums as much as I do, I encourage you to give these skills a try if you have an Alexa-enabled device or the free Alexa app on your smartphone!

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

Gordianus "The Finder," with his 66th birthday approaching, now spends much of his day relaxing in his peristyle garden reading and sipping a cup of the best vintage he can afford.  But some of his old clients can't seem to let him slip away into anonymity.  First Tiro, Cicero's secretary, comes knocking with a request for Gordianus to call upon his master.  Then Meto, Gordianus' oldest adopted son and trusted officer in the service of Gaius Julius Caesar, pays his father a visit. Caesar, now ruling dictator of Rome, also wishes to consult with the old "Finder".

So, we are once more immersed in the politics of a crumbling Roman Republic as Gordianus must brush the cobwebs from his tired brain and consider a list of possible suspects who may be contemplating the assassination of the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world. To help him do this, he decides to retreat to one of his favorite hangouts, the Salacious Tavern, and banter with his old friend Helvius Cinna, the most renowned poet in Rome.

When I began reading this book, I had heard that this was to be the capstone of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series. The pace of the novel is leisurely with Gordianus reminiscing about old cases and now dimly remembered characters who once played a role in his life as he meets with famous historical personalities like Cicero, Caesar, Cleopatra, Calpurnia, Cassius, and Brutus . I must admit this was a bit jarring, at first, for me having just read eleven of Anthony Riches' action-packed novels of the Roman Army.  But, I realized that the author was using this opportunity to remind us of why this period of history and this civilization was so memorable, carefully evoking the atmosphere and lifestyles of its inhabitants.

Saylor also spends a significant portion of the book revisiting Greco-Roman mythology and its role in Roman poetry.  Some readers may consider this a bit of an indulgence by the author. But as it turns out, myth is central to the final plot twist.

Mystery has always been the centerpiece of Saylor's novels and this one would be no different. We are given the chance to experience Caesar's fate through the eyes of Gordianus but it is not his death that will take center stage in the novel's climax.

It did appear to me that, sadly, Gordianus' powers of observation have lost some of their acuity and was a painful reminder of the decline I have experienced as advancing age has made its effects felt.  This is made a little more pronounced by the author's third person asides pointing out suspicious behaviors of the conspirators that seemingly went unnoticed. I am just two years older than the fictional hero and found myself cringing each time he referred to himself as an old man.

Fulvia depicted as Phrygia Eumeneia on a coin minted in 41-40 BCE

But, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the characters and motivations of such historical figures as Antony and Fulvia as the story within a story unfolded.  We find Antony is not just the bull-necked riotous playboy often depicted in Octavian's propaganda but a skilled orator and seemingly conscientious, though pragmatic, Roman politician.  In Fulvia, we find a woman not only driven by ambition but a forceful feminist who has learned how to balance Roman-prescribed pudicitia with power obtained from a carefully managed relationship with her marital partner.

So, be forewarned that this is not just a retelling of Caesar's final days, but an evaluation of relationships, missed opportunities, the power of literature, and the weight of responsibility even the "elderly" have to family, to friends and to society.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Alexa ventures to the ancient world

Update 6/19/2018 - Amazon has released a new tool to build little Alexa skills called Blueprints where they provide a sample template and you replace the text and sound effects with your own content. I tried it out and created a short story about the beginning of the Gallic Wars called "War Begins". (Alexa doesn't like proper nouns in story titles at this time). You'll see a link to it listed at the top of the left hand side bar but you'll need an Alexa enabled device to listen to it. I've decided to produce a series of these little stories about ancient history and events that I am calling Mary's history bits. I've tried to make these stories understandable for young history buffs with appropriate sound effects to make them more interesting. I'm hoping as time goes on Amazon will provide the ability to bundle these stories into volumes that can be enabled as a set but for the time being, they must be enabled one at a time.

Update 5/26/2018 - As of this morning, my Alexa skill "Classic Moments Rome" is now available in the U.K., Canada, Australia, and India, too!

As many of you know, I am not only passionately interested in ancient history but, as an education technologist, I continue to explore new technologies and how they can be used to promote the study of the ancient world.

Alexa is a virtual assistant developed by Amazon that uses artificial intelligence to perform numerous tasks like music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, playing games, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, serving as an intercom, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news, all using voice commands to an Alexa-enabled device such as a wifi-enabled Echo or Echo Dot speaker.  Alexa can also control light switches, door locks, Tvs, appliances, and other smart devices in a home automation system. What is particularly exciting for educators, though, is the ability to extend Alexa's  intelligence by installing "skills."

These skills can range from playing a wide range of ambient sounds for rest and meditation to quotes from ancient sources, one of the "skills" I developed.  You can also venture on imaginary quests to exotic places complete with sound effects, or hear memories you have stored. You can even learn to use cognitive techniques like constructing a "memory palace" to help you improve your recall. The vast majority of these "skills" are free and can be enabled on your device by simply saying "Alexa, enable (skill name) or going to the link below, searching for the skill and clicking the enable button.

An Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Dot
Naturally, I wanted to try to create an Alexa skill myself that would be ancient history related.  Alexa has a feature called a "Flash Briefing" that plays short broadcasts of information that you choose to add to your Flash Briefing queue. Typically, these broadcasts are updated daily so you are kept up to date with developments in your chosen subject matter. Alexa starts you off with a default broadcast from NPR (National Public Radio) and your local weather.

An update I have always wanted was information about upcoming exhibits of artifacts from the ancient world. Too many times I have found out about fascinating exhibits after its too late to attend. So, I searched all through the catalog of Alexa skills to see if someone offered something like that and was disappointed to discover there were none. So, I decided to build one myself for other history enthusiasts.

Storyline makes the development of an Alexa Flash Briefing skill a breeze once you set up a free basic account. One of the founders, Vasili Shynkarenka, clearly explains the short process in this video:

First, though, you need to choose the information you wish to provide on a daily basis. In my case that was a list of exhibits opening soon or in progress or information about an existing collection of artifacts in a museum's permanent collection. Fortunately, for me, I have photographed many museum collections so I already knew many museums that host ancient artifact exhibitions and collections.

I created a Google spreadsheet to record all of the exhibits I could find along with their title, description, dates of presentation, the institution where the exhibit is taking place, the location and a URL where listeners can find out more about it. I decided to enter only one post each day, though, prioritizing the posts by opening and closing dates, to ensure I would have enough content for a daily update for quite some time. Each day when I post an exhibit, I change my font color in my spreadsheet from black to red to flag the entry as posted. Then, each morning I search the internet for more exhibits to add to my list.

Using the Storyline tool, I uploaded my exhibit skill to my own Alexa network. But, I wanted to
share my skill with other English-speaking history enthusiasts so decided to publish it to the the Alexa skill catalog.  I did so by using Storyline's "Publish" feature. It presents you with a form to fill out to provide Amazon with enough information for the Alexa skill catalog. First, I needed to choose a name for my new skill. Amazon recommends choosing a name that reflects what your skill is about in two or three words. I chose the skill name "Antiquities Alive".

Then I needed to create an icon for my skill that would be displayed in the Alexa skill catalog. I used a picture I had of an elegant Greek table support of griffins attacking a doe that I photographed years ago at the Getty Villa to create my skill icons - one 108X108 pixels and the other 512X512 pixels.

Then I wrote a short description of the skill (a couple of sentences) and a more in depth description of the skill (a paragraph) to describe the contents of the Flash Briefing. This will also appear in the Alexa skill catalog.

Then I was asked if I planned to update the information daily or weekly. I chose to update the skill daily because people using the Flash Briefing function of Alexa expect the information to change from day to day. However, this means I was committed to searching for new exhibits to list every day.

With the form complete, I clicked "Submit". It only took a few hours to get my "Antiquities Alive" Flash Briefing skill approved by Amazon.

Now, I go into Storyline each morning, click on my "Live" skill and enter a post for that  day.

After I had my first Flash Briefing skill, "Antiquities Alive," certified. I then began to think about other information I would like to get in my Flash Briefing. Many of us who study the ancient world like to hear quotes from ancient sources. So, I decided to create a new Flash Briefing skill that would enable Alexa to read an ancient quote to me each day - sort of like a classicist's daily vitamin pill. I knew that I could find quotes easily between the Internet Classics Archive, the Perseus Project, and the Guttenberg Project.

So, I created a new Flash Briefing skill I called "Classic Moments Daily." Again I used a Google sheet to record the quotes I had selected along with the author, the work, and a link to the original source. This skill was also approved within a few hours.

If you use Alexa's Flash Briefing feature, though, it can become overwhelming if you have too many broadcasts in your queue. I prefer to listen to my Flash Briefing while I'm doing my morning housekeeping chores like making the bed, folding clothes, etc. Although I started out with only a few broadcasts like NPR, the BBC, the weather and an "Alexa things to try" tip, my queue grew to the point where it is now twenty minutes long and I'm having to wait for it to finish before I move on to my next task. I now listen to my own skills, "Antiquities Alive" and "Classic Moments Daily" (to make sure they are functioning correctly) then I listen to a friend's skill "Today in America" which provides information about important people and events that occurred on the current day, then the "Archaeology Eureka Alert" which gives me news about new archaeological discoveries, "Daily Tech Headlines" and CNet Tech for tech news updates, Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show monologue from the night before (for stress relief!), science and entertainment news updates, an AARP news update, the weather, and an "Alexa Things to Try" tip of the day.

Someone in the Storyline discussion forum mentioned having the same problem and asked if developers would provide the same information in a regular skill that could be called separately so they didn't have to listen to their entire Flash Briefing over and over if you wanted to learn more about a particular topic.

With this in mind, I decided to create a "sister" application to "Classic Moments Daily" and this month got approval for my new regular skill called "Classic Moments Rome" that can be called by itself if you want to listen to quotes from ancient Roman sources (a Greek sources version will be finished in a few more days).  When you ask Alexa to open "Classic Moments Rome" you will be able to hear an ancient quote along with the author's name and work quoted.  Then you will have the choice to say "Next" to listen to another quote, "Repeat" to hear the last quote again, or "Stop" if you've heard enough for the day. The quotes are stored in the same Google spreadsheet I created for Classic Moments Daily and pulled randomly by a program script so, usually, you won't hear the same quote twice in a row - especially since the database now includes almost 100 quotes. I also add new quotes daily if the new post to my Flash Briefing skill Classic Moments Daily is from a Roman source.

I am pulling the quotes from original translations. However, since short passages are easier to listen to than long, rambling paragraphs, I sometimes include a name or context to make the quote understandable. For example, in a quote about Gaius Marius' dealings with the kings of Numidia and Mauretania, I provide additional information about each person mentioned in the quote besides just their name. Also, in a regular skill, I can include some sound effects and I have done that in some cases.

I am also working on recreating virtual personalities from the ancient world that you will be able to converse with about their lives and respective cultures. The first will be published in June.

If you don't have an Amazon Echo speaker, either a full sized one or a little Dot, don't despair! You can now talk to Alexa on your phone with the free Alexa app!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

Having recently delved into Adrian Goldsworthy's "Pax Romana" which I found eminently readable and stuffed with fascinating facts and insight into the Roman world, I was excited to see that Goldsworthy had tried his hand at historical fiction when "Vindolanda" showed up in my list of audiobooks available on Audible. Without hesitation I used one of my subscription credits to purchase it and began listening to it as soon as I finished my last of eleven novels by Anthony Riches.

I realized this novel appeared to be his first effort at using his formidable knowledge about the Roman world in a fictional tale but I was not daunted by that since one of my favorite series, "Warrior of Rome", was written by a the Director of Studies in Ancient History at Oxford University, Harry Sidebottom.

Goldsworthy's protagonist, Flavius Ferox, is a prince of the Silures tribe who, as a hostage taken after the Roman conquest of Britain, was educated in Rome and inducted into the legions.

The Silures were a powerful tribal confederation that occupied what is now southeast Wales. Their first resistance to Roman conquest began in 48 CE with the help of Caratacus, a prince of the  Catuvellauni, who had fled from further east after his own tribe was defeated. The Romans, led by  Publius Ostorius Scapula, spent several years campaigning against the Silures, and found the Silures so adept at guerrilla warfare that Ostorius announced they posed such a danger that they should be either exterminated or transplanted.

After Ostorius died the Silures, still undefeated, went on to defeat the Second Legion. But, they were eventually subdued by Sextus Julius Frontinus in a series of campaigns ending about 78 CE. Of the Silures, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote: non atrocitate, non clementia mutabatur– the tribe "was changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency".

When the novel begins, Ferox is a  Centurio Regionarius, an officer responsible for local law enforcement, who has been sent to an isolated outpost within a days ride of the more formidable Roman fort at Vindolanda. We learn from his own recalled memories or from comments made by a Brigantes scout named Vindex, that Ferox has a past littered with moments of extreme bravery clouded by an irascible nature that has resulted in conflict between Ferox and his commanders, ultimately leading to his apparent banishment to this backwater post.

Ferox also appears to have a sporadic drinking problem that crops up whenever he is not kept suitably occupied. We learn his wife mysteriously disappeared some years ago and he blames himself. Whether she was kidnapped by disaffected druids or simply left for personal reasons is not made clear. This plot point was apparently introduced to justify his rather unprofessional initial behavior.
Vindex has known Ferox for some time and knows how to handle him during his despondent periods. The best medicine is loosing Ferox on the scent of a murder and fortunately, Vindex rides in with two bodies.

At this point I had to adjust my expectations for this story. I was expecting a story about a Centurion and a band of reluctant cohorts that he had to whip into shape to confront a threat from local rebels. But, I was only partly correct. As it turns out, Ferox is first and foremost, a highly skilled tracker and more of a detective type, than cohort commander. Ferox appears to have little influence on his own troops but soon leaves them anyway so I guess it doesn't matter. The only relationship he has developed is with Vindex and it is more like that between two lone wolves than the close brotherhood of centurions I had grown so accustomed to after reading eleven novels by Anthony Riches.

This lack of depth in character dynamics left me feeling detached from any of the people I met, including Ferox. So I began to struggle to become engaged in the plot.

Ferox and Vindex find evidence of a rebel war band and track the rebels to the road leading to Vindolanda. They find the rebels attacking a Roman carriage escorted by a Batavian cohort from Vindolanda. But, the Batavians are outnumbered and are being overwhelmed by scantily dressed warriors emblazoned by tatoos shaped like a horse.

At this point, I really had to struggle to remain open-minded as I had just read "Betrayal" and "Onslaught" in Anthony Riches' "Centurions" series about the Batavian Revolt in which I learned the Batavians were considered the "best of the best" Roman auxilliaries. But this was about thirty years after that time and perhaps the Batavians had lost some of their edge after being put in their place when the Romans exacted "Retribution" (the third novel in the series due out in April).

Anyway, Ferox and Vindex turn the tables and Ferox ends up saving the life of Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the prefect of Vindolanda, Flavius Cerialis (and a real woman in history as attested to by letters that have been recovered by archaeologists there).

Ferox and Sulpicia are apparently attracted to one another and their relationship will become a subplot throughout the rest of the novel.

Ferox and Vindex return the lady and her maid to Vindolanda and confer with Cerialis about the looming rebel threat. Then Ferox and Vindex ride out to the signal tower to see why the warning signal was delayed. There they find the detachment slaughtered with the exception of one soldier who is missing. At this point Ferox begins to suspect there must be a high-ranking traitor among the Romans who is working with the enemy.

The rest of the novel follows Ferox as he tries to determine who has betrayed Rome and survive the forces of "The Stallion."

With Goldsworthy's extensive classical education, the descriptions of Roman life and military deployments is, of course, authoritative. However, sometimes the extensive descriptions actually get in the way of the story and slow the pace considerably.  I also felt the supporting characters lacked sufficient development to make the story as compelling as it could have been. I didn't know enough about the officer who turned out to be the villain to be appalled by his behavior and Goldsworthy didn't supply enough information about why his family opposed the newly minted emperor Trajan to really justify his betrayal. I also didn't think there were enough "breadcrumbs" left throughout the story so a reader could at least have an idea who the traitor might be. At the end, when all was revealed, I felt no catharsis, since I didn't have hardly a clue about who it might be anyway.

However, I do think Goldsworthy's battle scenes were visceral and authentic, reflecting his extensive study of the Roman military in action. For a first novel, it was a good effort and I do plan to give the sequel, "The Encircling Sea," a listen if it makes it to Audible.

A Kindle preview:

More suggested reading:

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: Atlas of Empires by Peter Davidson

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

In the opening pages of this reference work, Peter Davidson tells us about his friend who defined an empire as "murder, incest, and the wearing of expensive jewelry!"

"There is the image here both of glorious conquest and of power held over far-flung lands, and indeed this captures something of what we have come to mean by the term 'empire,'" Davidson observes, "But how, then, does empire come about, what forms can it take, and does it have a defining characteristic?"

These are the questions he attempts to answer as he compiles information about most, if not all, empires that have arisen and collapsed throughout world history.

He begins by dividing up his work into nine main chapters, beginning with early civilizations formed when the social construct of empire was a new concept.  The first chapter, entitled "War and Peace", examines the contention between Sumer and Akkad, the rise of Egypt, how the attributes of a military society like Assyria could not achieve stability without advances in administration like those developed by the rulers of Babylonia, and how religion was used to forge unity between disparate peoples by the kings of Persia.

Chapter two focuses on empires of the classical world including Greece and Rome, as well as Alexander's conquests, the Parthians and Sasanians of Iran, the Mauryas and Guptas of India, and the Qin and Han of ancient China.

"The story of Rome is one of adaptation," Davidson points out. "The early growth of Roman power sprange from a zealous and rapacious republicanism that eventually threatened to destroy the republic itself. Unlike Athens, however, Rome restructured to resolve the tension between republic and empire. Subsequently, Rome began to resemble the Persia of Cyrus and Darius in the measures it took to cope with its increasing size and multiculturalism."

In chapter three Davidson leaves the ancient world behind and concentrates on what he terms "Empires of Faith", the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Abbasid Caliphate.
"All the classical empires found ways to supplement control by force with a measure of consent delivered by shared beliefs," Davidson explains. "As the classical world crumbled and people looked for something to hold on to, however, religious ideas promising salvation exerted a stronger pull than political ideas such as citizenship."

Empires of the horse take up Chapter Four as Davidson examines the conquests and achievements of the Mongols, the later empires of the Chinese beginning with the Sui and ending with the Qing, Muslim India with the splendor of the Mughals, and the Ottoman Empire.

"The horse made light work of invading Eurasia's agricultural civilizations but building empires was another matter," Davidson points out. "The steppe riders faced the usual tribal problems of creating a larger community. They also faced the dilemma of what to do with the societies they conquered. If they destroyed they gained little. If they bent themselves to an alien way of life they stood to lose their identity."

Chapter Five looks at what Davidson terms "Empires of Isolation." Three empires are examined here including Mali, the Aztecs, and the Incas. Davidson observes that the empires arising in Eurasia  were ultimately linked by trade and religion but such was not the case in sub-Saharan Africa and in Central and South America. And yet, spectacular empires arose even without the use of iron and steel, draft animals or even the wheel, in some cases.

Chapter Six looks at the first global empires, Spain, Portugal, the Dutch, and both Britain and France in the Americas.

"Managing such far-flung empires was a new challenge," says Davidson. "It was partly a question of money. To squeeze profit from the silver mines of Peru or the nutmeg trees of the Est Indies, ships had to be built, voyages that could take two years had to be financed, and things had to keep going at home."

Chapter Seven examines the conquests of Napoleon, the development of Tsarist Russia and the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs.

"As much in opposition to French occupation as in sympathy with French ideals, national independence movements sprouted across the continent," Davidson observes. "The age of the nation-state had arrived, with first Greece, and later Italy, Germany, and others finding their modern form."
The imperialism of Britain and Japan are examined in Chapter Eight.

"By the 1870s, nationalism had become as much a force to serve imperial ambitions as to incite independence movements. A second industrial revolution now gave Continental powers the chance to compete with Brtain, and , as the 19th century drew to a close, a single global empire gave way to a feeding frenzy for colonial possessions ending in the First World War," Davidson states.

In the last chapter, entitled "Empires and Utopias" Davidson looks at the U.S., the Soviet Uniion, and the European Union.  In it, Davidson says each of these entities were ultimately searching for a better world but with the world defined differently to different people with widely disparate histories.

Like any good atlas, this one is full of maps I found extremely helpful in understanding the migration routes of various groups that conquered or influenced specific civilizations. There are other illustrations of cultural art and architecture. Davidson also includes an index and suggested readings.

Davidson does a good job of defining and describing key cultural characteristics of each empire and the inherent challenges their leaders faced.  He also astutely defines the strengths and weaknesses of each and how these either helped it to achieve greatness or resulted in its ultimate decline and destruction. You will not find descriptions of specific battles or a comprehensive discussion of each emperor's reign. Davidson limits even the most complex empire to about four to five pages including illustrations. But, I think this reference work does an excellent job of providing an overview of peoples and forces that have shaped our world.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Betrayal Book 1 of the Centurions trilogy by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

After reading nine books in Riches' "Empire" series, I had to do an about face when I began to read Betrayal, Book 1 of his "Centurions" trilogy. Not only was I transported back almost 100 years earlier but it's the Year of the Four Emperors and suddenly both sides poised for mortal combat are all members of the Roman army.  Quite honestly, I didn't know who to root for. On the one hand, I came to admire Kivilaz, known as Julius Civilis to the Romans, prince of the Batavi and a courageous warrior who demonstrates his bravery and intrinsic leadership in the opening pages of the introduction at the battle of the Medway River. But on the other hand I soon found Centurion Marius, first spear of the Fifth Legion, a man who has come up through the ranks and maintains a fierce sense of loyalty to the empire and to the men who serve with him, equally inspiring.

When we first meet Civilis, he has been unjustly imprisoned for, what the Roman's suspect, support of Gaius Julius Vindex and his Gallic revolt against the emperor Nero.

Vindex attempted to clear the way to the throne for the then governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. According to the historian Cassius Dio, Vindex "was powerful in body and of shrewd intelligence, was skilled in warfare and full of daring for any great enterprise; and he had a passionate love of freedom and a vast ambition." However, in the novel Civilis has a much different opinion of Vindex that appears to be warranted when Vindex is defeated by the legions of Germania Superior lead by Lucius Verginius Rufus and commits suicide.

Nero has, in the meantime, committed suicide and Galba has taken the throne. Even though Galba's accession was the goal of the Vindex revolt, Galba is of the old school of Roman justice that dictates Roman rebels must be severely dealt with, regardless of who they were attempting to elevate. So Civilis' fate hangs by a thread.

Galba dismisses his Batavian bodyguard, who have served as loyal bodyguards of emperors  since the days of Augustus, and replaces them with local Praetorians. He spares Civilis, though, unwilling to put to death what he views as a loyal supporter. But Galba sends Civilis and the Batavi back to their homeland in disgrace, even though Civilis and the eight Batavi cohorts had played an important role in the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE and the subsequent subjugation of that country from 43 - 66 CE.

Batavian cavalry mask
To make matters worse between Rome and the Batavi, the new commander of Germania Inferior, Aulus Vitellius, is convinced by the centurions of the "old camp" who originally charged Civilis with treason, to rearrest him upon his return.

The Rhine legions have not forgotten Nero's betrayal and the part Galba played in it. So, at the beginning of the new year they refuse to take the sacramentum, the oath of loyalty, to Galba. Instead they proclaim Vitellius as the new emperor and all available troops, including the Batavi are swept up to march south to meet the "usurper's" legions.

As the novel progressed, I came to admire Alcaeus, the Batavi's wolf-priest of Hercules, for not only his martial prowess but his deeply seated sense of honor and dedication to his Batavi brothers. I became fond of a new Batavi recruit named Eglehart, too. Although newly inducted into the Batavi auxiliary, he had spent years in training with his father and uncle, veterans who served the legions loyally for over 25 years. So, it's no surprise when he is eventually dubbed Achilles for his courage and skill on the battlefield.

Once again I found Riches' characters vibrant and their friendship with each other compelling. I found myself going about my daily chores chanting "Batavi swim the seas..," the Batavi's battle cry.

Of course Riches' gritty, heart-pounding combat sequences always keep me on the edge of my seat. The novel ends with the climactic battle of Cremona (also known as the First Battle of Bedriacum) where the Batavi face off against a corps of marines and a unit of gladiators fighting for Otho. I found the battle sequence particularly interesting because the battle was also the climax of Doug Jackson's novel, "Sword of Rome", only his hero Gaius Valerius Verrens is fighting with the gladiators and marines. So, I have now had the chance to view this battle from both sides!

Betrayal is another outstanding example of Anthony Riches' craftsmanship and meticulous research and I highly recommend it! I'm really looking forward to Onslaught, Book2, where the Batavian Revolt gets underway in earnest!

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Illustrated historical timelines can now be developed online with eStory!

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Years ago I participated in a workshop about the development of effective data graphics. The instructor used Charles Joseph Minard's classic timeline of events that occurred during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 as his primary example. This historic data graphic not only relayed dates and events but, through the thickness of the line, represented the catastrophic losses in Napoleon's army  suffered in that brutal winter campaign.

Charles Joseph Minard's classic timeline of Napoleon's invasion of and retreat from Russia in 1812.
"From the most ancient images to the contemporary, the line has served as the central figure in the representation of time. The linear metaphor is ubiquitous in everyday visual representations of time—in almanacs, calendars, charts, and graphs of all sorts. Even our everyday speech is filled with talk of time having a "before" and an "after" or being "long" and "short." The timeline is such a familiar part of our mental furniture that it is sometimes hard to remember that we invented it in the first place." - Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline

I have always found timelines to be excellent tools for providing structure for historical events and the ability to compare both events and technological developments of different cultures over a similar time period. So when Jonathan Pinet contacted me last month and described the new timeline tool he and Jean Benoit Malzac were developing, I became quite interested in their efforts. Jonathan had read some of my posts on "Roman Times" and wondered if I would develop several timelines focused on Roman History for their new timeline website Estory. So I spent several days compiling a list of dates and events for the Gallic Wars then finding images on the web I could use for illustration.

As my timeline was quite detailed, Jean Benoit asked me to break it into three parts to limit each timeline to 15 - 20 events so I did so and the following three timelines are the result. (click on the linked captions to view the timeline)

Gallic Wars Timeline Pt 1: The Helvetii

Gallic Wars Timeline Pt 2: Pirates and Britons
Gallic Wars Timeline Pt 3: Roman victory at Alesia

The eStory tool allows you to use either still images, animated GIFs, or video clips to illustrate each information slide. At present there is no intermediate save function, though,  so I recommend you compile your list of dates, events and the URLs for illustrations using a spreadsheet first then login to eStory and enter your data.  Once you save your timeline you will no longer be able to edit it (at the moment). However, if you wish to make changes or additions after you have published it, Estory has an online chat feature where you can provide information to Jean Benoit and he will make the changes for you.  Hopefully, online editing of an existing timeline will be added soon.

The timeline tool also has features to provide links to recommended movies, books, and related articles to enrich your timeline.  If you provide the titles to the movies and books, Jean Benoit will look them up on Amazon and enter the appropriate links after you publish your timeline. Articles can be linked by providing their URLs.

I have asked Jonathan and Jean Benoit to consider adding the ability to display two timelines, one above the other, so cultures and political developments can be easily compared across the same time period. Hopefully, this feature will make it into the development schedule.

I would also like to see the development of a collaborative environment so group members could work on timelines together. I really enjoyed the history of sailboats timeline developed by Aurélien Ferré but wished I could have added some slides about ship development in the Greco-Roman period between his slides of 5000 BCE and the 9th century CE.

I encourage you to visit eStory and check out some of the interesting timelines that have been created there. Then set up a free account of your own and develop a timeline about a subject that interests you!

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