Saturday Dec 18, 2004

Perspectives from Ireland

The blogs.sun.com roller page shows four diverse bloggers in Ireland (but not all from Ireland) right now: Calum Benson, Ghee Teo, Fintan Ryan and Brian Nitz. Blog on guys!

Wednesday Dec 08, 2004

Blogs and Journals - Whither or Wither?

I still think that online journals and blogs will co-exist peacefully, but I'm not so sure if all journals will thrive in the more competitive "market" for views and information. It's truly sad to see articles like eWeek's A Year of Victory for Linux descend into rant and never come back up. It just looks like a bad blog. Jim Grisanzio corrects the blatant errors there very well, so I'm not going to bite this time (but see here, here and here for earlier occasions where I could not resist).

If some e-journals are already beginning to offer nothing more than a web-site for randam rants designed to catch the eye with keywords like "Linux", "EIA" and "SOA", where can they go from here? I can read unsubstantiated BS all over the web, and most of it is funnier or stranger and certainly truer than that eWeek article. Many blogs now have more facts and more reasoned arguments (and certainly more insight) than eWeek presently offers. Even explicitly open-source journals like NewsForge offer better and more objective analysis relating to their broad core of topics. Not to mention that journals like The Register succeed in serving up well-written analysis and opinion with humour, insight and a pinch of worthwhile scepticisim.

Anyone with an RSS reader can select from a range of "channels" and read what they want to read, whereever it comes from. I honestly think that folks who read online don't need the few desparate rant e-journals that claim to be the visionaries of the coming revolution (didn't we hear enough of that during the dot-com years?)

Don't have time or space for another desktop app? Use Thunderbird, it's got a solid basic RSS reader (integrated with mail and news!) that will grow as you need more from it.

Tuesday Dec 07, 2004

WikiNews has arrived

Complimenting the encyclopedic definitions in WikiPedia, WikiNews is a persistent peer-based news media service. Contributors are suggested but not required to use tags that indicate the status of a news item (in development, under peer review).

Between blogs and other peer media, online journals are under increasing pressure to differentiate. It's hard to compete with a good domain-specific journal for writing quality, news accuracy and topic coverage. That said, blogs (and especially RSS feeds) provide a way to get content that is fresh, savvy, opinionated and diverse.

Monday Dec 06, 2004

A Better BBC

The BBC has a worldwide reputation as a quality provider of tv, radio and internet content, but they plan to tune their strategy to meet revenue targets; the steps are to: reduce and reassign staff, decentralise with more local content, focus on high quality innovative content in their established themes (original journalism, newsgathering and current affairs, original British drama and comedy, children's shows and digital TV).

This seems to be a unique strategy in the English-speaking media world which is trending towards low-quality, repeat, derivative or "reality" content with an excess of advertising. Read more on the summary on the BBC web site.

Sci-fi movie - Doom-ed?

Slashdot carries a discussion about the Doom movie based on the computer game of the same name. A lot of fans of the game are irritated and pessimistic as the producers appear to want to retain the look, feel and above all brand of Doom but lose the controversial "creatures from hell" aspect which some deem essential.

To be honest, I'm not sure what anyone's complaining about. Most first-person shooters are about ceaseless immersive combat using escalating hardware (and running on escalating hardware) against increasingly dangerous creatures. Doom (and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D) practically invented the genre, but aside from improving the special effects, the game itself has not evolved from it's pixellated beginnings. And Doom's basic scenario (one man against hell spawn) is not a real basis for a movie script.

If any game has a chance to survive somewhat intact to a passive media like movies, it's probably Half-Life where there is an unfolding scenario, mysterious characters with unknown goals, in-game characters who engage in meaningful dialogue, not to mention a diversity of interactive and dynamic environments to delight the eye. But players already know that plot, so a Half-Life movie would have to diverge from it, which in turn frustrates fans. In this sense, a basic game "plot" lends itself better to being movie-fied because it can be added to without taking away from the foundation.

Movies usually add some depth to a basic story; more background, characters with personalities, emotions and goals; ironically the Doom movie is going to step away from all that by giving us extended segments using a first-person perspective. This is often used to show the viewer the perspective of a monster as it ravages it's victims, but using it to more accurately recreate the feel of a game is missing the point; games are interactive, movies are not (rewind, pause and forward don't count). I think extended first-person perspective without some control will simply frustrate the viewer (and probably make it hard to hold down any previously munched popcorn).

But as something of a sci-fi buff, the frustrating part for me is that the genre seems to be in a decline; the Alien series peaked long ago, the Space Odysseys have run their course, Solaris was (twice) a unique one-off, the Matrixes (or Matrices?) ended on a re-run of episodes 1 and 2 (though with some neat rain effects and more Hugo Weaving than you can shake a stick at), Twelve Monkeys and especially Brazil are but a delightful memory, Pi was odd but perfect, and Star Wars & Trek seem to have boldly gone too far.

So has the sci-fi genre played out, like westerns? Far from it; it's just that movie making is all about risk avoidance and not much about innovation, so exploiting a brand like Doom makes sound business sense even if it provides no creative input.

Just to show that there is endless potential to revisit and expand on standard sci-fi themes in existing material, here is the result of a brief brainstorming:

  • In a decadent dissolute evolved future society where humans are called Humes, every so often a mutant throwback becomes an unstoppable criminal; the society has a limited supply of ancient genetic material from which clones can be grown on demand, however the process of creating a clone damages the source material (genetic and memories) with consequences for the next clone to be made; the lead character is such a clone, restored with full memories from the previous clone, but damaged; while the criminal becomes more sophisticated, the clone protagonist gradually reverts to something more primitive, but with the pain of the memory of their earlier sophistication. The film is a race against time before the protagonist reverts to a intellectual Neanderthal, and a study of the cruelty of this staccato form of immortality. Secondary characters include a heartless Hume, a partner Hume and some love interest. This one is pretty derivative (shades of Brave New World meets Judge Dredd meets Blade Runner meets Gattaca meets Awakenings) but the plight of the main character and the apparent futility of his (or her) clones' efforts to stop the criminal offer some potential for an interesting human angle
  • In a world where humans and robots co-exist, the 2 main characters and the evil mastermind are non-humanoid robots (forget 3 laws of Robotics, think larger-than-life Hellboy-type personalities); shades of 2000 AD's Ro-busters, Antz, and Starsky & Hutch meets 48 Hours
  • In a dark future where all human brains are networked, interaction with computers and media requires no external device; (however instead of normal REM sleep, your brain is used as compute power, so instead of dreams you experience the equivalent of a screensaver which shows advertising and social education movies), the global master computer (Sandman) has occasionally had an excess of compute power and instead has monitored normal dreams which both teach and confuse it, until it becomes dangerously sentient, seeking round-the-clock control of human thought; the plot involves a combination of real action, dream sequences which effectively hack Sandman, and electronic hacking in a virtual reality; borders on the Matrix and Nightmare on Elm Street III, but with far more potential for bizarre scenes and a more personal AI villian (shades of Shodan from the System Shock game series); unlike the fundamentally broken premise of the Matrix, it is at least theoretically possible that the human brain (or other brains) could be used as a CPU
  • At least two books (Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Julian May's Pliocene Exiles) consider how an alien species leads to human life as we know it, but there are many more ways to use this fundamental idea:
    • the apparently defunct genetic material in our DNA is simply inactive, waiting for a signal within the Earth to bring about a near-overnight evolution (the genetic information is used by mutagenic nanomachines, so it doesn't require an overnight transformation like Spiderman) which effectively turns a significant portion of the human population into aliens who want to complete a cleansing of the remaining population; the signal also broadcasts a racial memory so the aliens have a common misson and are able to rapidly develop technology to help with this conquest; however due unexpected changes in the Earth's mantle/core/magnetic-field, the transfomation miraculously leaves US/Europe/Asia/Ireland unharmed, so it's up to the brave few to save what is left of humanity from the alien horde and/or the transformation that will occur when the aliens repair their few defunct transmitters; cue Alien meets V meets Village of the Damned meets Voyage to the Centre of the Earth; why did the alien race hide itself in this way? to escape genocide by another (good/evil/neutral) alien race
    • the Earth enters a Fire Age (opposite of an Ice Age); this occurs not so rapidly as in Day After Tomorrow, but say over 10-20 years; this awakens a sophisticated alien race who are in millenial hibernation (suspended animation); the alien race are: a) good and want to help mankind adjust; b) bad and want to kill/enslave/eat mankind, while mankind are a) good and want to adjust to their new neighbours, b) bad and want to kill/enslave/eat the aliens

What does this go to prove? That if some well paid creative folks put any real effort into sci-fi (above is neither real, creative, well paid, or an effort), there are plenty of bizarre and interesting ideas to explore, with options to steer closer or further from the mainstream as desired.

Saturday Dec 04, 2004

The da Vinci Code

I approached Dan Brown's The da Vinci Code late last night with optimism; I still had a light buzz on from an excellent dinner (my sister's birthday) with even better wine, and I had heard mostly good things about the book from friends. Not to mention that the New York Times had dubbed it a "brainy thriller" and a work of "blockbuster perfection". Only one brave dissenter labelled it disappointing and mediocre, but as this was a throwaway comment from an acquaintance, I had little doubts that this book would be rewarding. But even the wine and a pleasant weariness were not enough to keep me from sadly filing this thriller under "miscellaneous" in about 25 minutes.

The initial page labelled "Fact" about the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei sent some warning signals that this book was going to rake the dirt yet again on a few conspiracy theories, but the statement "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate" should have been an even stronger warning; normally something like this is buried in a preface, but calling it out on a "Fact" page suggested a risk that we were about to be exposed to wearisome documentary-like descriptions lodged in lengthy narrative. But this could also be just a quirk of the author, so I skipped on merrily (literally) to the first page of the novel.

The initial scene with the curator was a little stodgy but the intent masochism of the albino agent in chapter two though crude was sufficiently effective to keep me reading. I stumbled a little at the musings of the protagonist in chapter three that the French "could not have chosen a more apt national emblem than a thousand-foot phallus" (the Eiffel tower). Surely this was a bad joke; by this crude measure, all architecture of any height resembles a phallus, so the Manhattan skyline must look to the author like a line-up in an all-male gang bang. This introspection sits so badly alongside the otherwise reverential detail of Paris architecture (but then again the protagonist is an expert on symbology so he should know). The musing by this character proceeds in just a few pages to include 'It's your circus' and 'I'm trapped in a Salvador Dali painting', which were beginning to make me feel trapped in an overrated novel.

The arrival of Bezu Fache, who is described several times over just three pages, was a struggle to read through; he must surely be a god-like being of infinite facets to be described by such an abundance of (bitterly cliched) metaphors and similes:

The man was stocky and dark, almost Neanderthal, dressed in a dark double-breasted suit that strained to cover his wide shoulders. He advanced with unmistakable authority on squat, powerful legs.
And a mere three sentences later:
His tone was fitting - a gutteral rumble... like a gathering storm.

And 2 short pages later:

Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship.

I began to read on in fear that pages soon after would describe his hands, feet, arms, back and teeth but it appeared I would be spared this, for now. After some dialogue and a little detail inside the Louvre, the chapter clangs to an end with the protagonist being concerned about how suavely he slides under a heavy iron gate despite the reader being notified moments earlier that he is claustrophobic and fears lifts after plunging to the bottom of one as a child.

But when the next chapter launched into a docu-diatribe on Opus Dei, I began to feel the tug of sleep and the promise of an escape into dreams. I ended on this paragraph:

'Many call Opus Dei a brainwashing cult,' reporters often challenged. 'Others call you an ultra-conservative Christian society. Which are you?'

This clumsy use of quotes within narrative is just one more indictment of the author's skill with perspective. Perhaps I expect too much, but I like a book that knows what it is: a documentary, a drama, a thriller, a soap, and is capable of delivering that in a reasonable style. Dan Brown's book seems to be an awkward weaving of all of these.

Ah well, my stash from the library includes Michael Connelly's Lost Light which looks promising, Robert Harris' Enigma which has an imaginative setting and a first page that reads beautifully, and Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh which I am definitely saving for lucid daylight.

Friday Dec 03, 2004

You Know What I Want to Know - The Wisdom of Crowds

I guess you could read many people's views about James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, and that's probably the best and most fitting way to find out if you will like it. Surowiecki's idea is that, contrary to the message of negative terms such as mob psychology or groupthink, a crowd can be smarter than an expert.

Something about this concept is so appealling, but after reading it I am even more convinced that crowds are stupid and that only individuals thinking independently (while comparing notes) are smart.

If you look closely at his many examples, they don't show that a random collection of people is smart; they show that taking the average of the views of a collection of people thinking individually leads you to an accurate result:

  • estimating a bull's weight (Francis Galton calculated the average of 787 "votes" which was accurate to within 10 grams)
  • identifying the most likely position for a lost submarine (John Craven used Bayes' Theorem to approximate the location, only 220 yards off)
  • the "surprising" accuracy of the audience in the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; his quoted rate of 91% is not correlated with the actual value or difficulty of the question; since the initial questions are intended to be 'common knowledge', this result is to be expected
Several examples allow for communication between the individuals, or even a cyclical accumulation of information:
  • the collective result of people navigating an unknown maze multiple times; how surprising is it that the average path (a journey comprised of the average decision at each branch in the maze) turned out to be optimal? don't we expect people to learn, and then mostly remember what they learned just minutes earlier?
  • the actions of the stock market; I would argue that this is similar to a transit of a maze; the decisions of the individual stock traders are not independent, they are often sequential and influenced by earlier decisions
  • the specific example of the stock market identifying Morton Thiokol (manufacturer of the solid-fuel booster rocket) as the cause of the space shuttle Challenger explosion seems promising, but given that the solid booster rocket is the part that is active during initial lift-off (Challenger blew up after 74 seconds), it's intuitively the safest bet; clearly not everyone is going to make this connection, but it's possible that enough smart individuals start some stock movement, and the rest can be explained by herd action or momentum
  • Google accuracy - ok, this is truly amazing, but it also demonstrates an accumulated result; since users posting information often use Google to find information, they have information that enables them to create a positive feedback loop that increases the accuracy and relevance of the result; in essence, I believe this simply shows that there are often an infinite number of wrong answers, but only a few right answers which many individuals will find independently

In my view, the suggested wisdom of "crowds" is the result of either positive feedback loops or an algorithm that averages a collection of individual less accurate results. But what does this really add to the use of Bayes' Theorem to use conditional probabilties to process subjective accounts of evidence? An individual who has a chance to learn from another is more likely to achieve a better result.

Don't get me wrong - this is a lovely book, well worth reading; it is often inspirational to see examples of collections of individuals achieving a good or even perfect result. But these collections of people are not groups let alone crowds in the normal sense.

For me the standout best example of "the wisdom of crowds" (according to Surowiecki's meaning of "crowd") is open-source software development. When the individual hackers are talented and the quality standards of users are high, the results of a rapid feedback loop of continuous development can be excellent. But this is a "group" only in the sense of a collection of individuals who modify their individual behaviour, not in the sense of people who are coordinating their group activity.

In a nutshell, when and why do groups fail? Here's my attempt to state this; they fail when they look inward as a group, developing group norms that override individual intelligence; the group then is simply an exaggeration of the impulses of herd leaders. And the group succeeds when it truly seeks the best result from a collection of individuals, each individually seeking the best answer and modifying it based on information and opinions from the others.

This here is a blog entry. How did you find it? Beats me, but the most successful blogs are by definition the result of many iterations of people making a decision based on an accumulated or average decision made by others. Fame or recognition operates in the same way, in part based on individual decision, in part based on herd momentum. The wisdom of crowds? I can't call it that. To me it is positive feedback loops, new sources of information and each individual making the most intelligent decision that they can at any moment in time that will lead to the best result. Not so romantic, but essentially the truth.

Should you buy The Wisdom of Crowds? Well, don't buy it because it's in some top 10 list; buy it because you value and agree with the reviews of others who liked it.

As Monty Python has it, we are all individuals. So long as that remains true, then collectively we're pretty intelligent.

Wednesday Dec 01, 2004

Year of the Blog

According to Merriam-Webster, 2004 was the year of the blog as "blog" was the most-searched-for word in their online dictionary, topping words from people clearly trying to understand what the US presidential election was about, like "incumbent" and even "electoral" and perhaps "insurgent".

Equally interestingly, the 10th most popular word was "defenestration". Windows being removed?

Thursday Nov 25, 2004

Framing - Lakoff's manifesto

George Lakoff says: If the facts don't fit the frames, the frames stay and the facts are ignored. And he wasn't talking about reading glasses; he was talking about changing the way people really look at things.

If you have some reading time today (it's equivalent to about 10 A4 pages), George Lakoff's manifesto is an eye-opener.

Monday Nov 22, 2004

Balance on the Perfect Wave

I never cease to be impressed by Google's automatic translations; it's fun to try it on songs because they sometimes take on a poetic quality that was never in the original. Just for kicks (well, I'm on holiday this week!) I tried this on a cute pop song by a German band called Juli - Perfekte Welle (Perfect Wave). I also tried to do a manual translation with a little fine-tuning to try to restore some of the rhyme. See how they compare (even more fun if you know a little German).

Original German
Google (German to English) translation
Manual translation
Mit jeder Welle kam ein Traum,
Träume gehen vorüber,
dein Brett ist verstaubt,
deine Zweifel schäumen über,
hast dein Leben lang gewartet,
hast gehofft, daß es sie gibt,
hast den Glauben fast verloren,
hast dich nicht vom Fleck bewegt.

Bridge
Jetzt kommt sie langsam auf dich zu,
das Wasser schlägt dir ins Gesicht,
siehst dein Leben wie ein Film,
du kannst nicht glauben, dass sie bricht.

Chorus
Das ist die perfekte Welle,
das ist der perfekte Tag,
lass dich einfach von ihr tragen,
denk am besten gar nicht nach.

Das ist die perfekte Welle,
das ist der perfekte Tag,
es gibt mehr als du weißt,
es gibt mehr als du sagst.

Deine Hände sind schon taub,
hast Salz in deinen Augen,
zwischen Tränen und Staub,
fällt es schwer oft dran zu glauben,
hast dein Leben lang gewartet,
hast die Wellen nie gezählt,
das ist alles nicht gewollt,
hast viel zu schnell gelebt.

(Bridge)

(Chorus)

Du stellst dich in den Sturm und schreist,
ich bin hier ich bin frei,
alles was ich will ist Zeit,
ich bin hier ich bin frei,
Du stellst dich in den Sturm und schreist,
ich bin hier ich bin frei,
ich bin hier ich bin frei.

Das ist die perfekte Welle

(Chorus)

Das ist die perfekte Welle,
das ist der perfekte Tag dafür.

Das ist die perfekte Welle,
das ist der perfekte Tag.

With each wave a dream,
dreams came passes,
your board is dusty,
your doubts foams over,
your life long waited,
has hoped that there are it,
the faith nearly lost,
you from the mark did not move. 

Bridge
Comes it slowly to you,
the water strikes to you now in the face,
sees your life like a film,
you can not believe that she breaks. 

Chorus
That is the perfect wave,
that is the perfect day,
lets you simply from it carry,
 does not think best. 

That is the perfect wave,
which is the perfect day,
it gives more than you knows,
it gives more than you says. 

Your hands are already deaf,
have salt in your eyes,
between tears and dust,
fall it to to with difficulty often believe,
your life long waited,
the waves counted,
that are not intended never everything,
much too fast lived. 

(Bridge)

(Chorus)

You place yourself into the storm and cry,
I are I are free here,
everything which I want are time,
I are I are here free,
you place yourself into the storm and cry,
I are I am here free,
I am I am here free. 

That is the perfect wave

(Chorus)

That is the perfect wave,
that is the perfect day for it. 

That is the perfect wave,
that is the perfect day.
With every wave comes a dream,
dreams pass over,
your board is dusty,
your doubts foam over,
waited your life long,
hoping that it is,
your faith almost gone,
you did not move from this.

Bridge
Now it comes slowly to you,
the water strikes you in the face,
you see your life now like a film,
you can't believe that it breaks.

Chorus
That is the perfect wave,
that is the perfect day,
let your self be carried by it,
best not to think it away

That is the perfect wave,
which is the perfect day,
there is more than you know,
there is more than you say.

Your hands are already mute,
and salt is in your eyes,
between tears and dust,
to believe has not been wise
waited your life unended,
never counted each wave,
that is all unintended,
lived much too brave.

(Bridge)

(Chorus)

You stand in the storm and cry,
I am here, I am free,
all that I want is time,
I am here, I am free,
You stand in the storm and scream,
I am here, I am free,
I am here, I am free.

That is the perfect wave

(Chorus)

That is the perfect wave,
that's the perfect day for it. 

That is the perfect wave,
that is the perfect day.

There are a few ways to play with the metaphor in this song; for example imagine if "board" was "keyboard"; it could be a song about a late night coding session on an open-source project ;)

Friday Nov 19, 2004

A bridge to the future

A lot has been written on the subject of innovation, but the heart of it is the drive to create the future -  not just the future that comes at you one second at a time, but a future where looking back you say to yourself: how did we ever survive without that?

Innovating starts with the will to destroy the inadequate present:

  • G. K. Chesterton said "a yawn is a silent shout"; don't be dissatisfied, get downright angry with limitations and wrongs; kick, scream and do something about it
  • Socrates said it best: "To find yourself, think for yourself"
  • However innovation is about the doing that comes after (and before) the thought; Picasso expressed this as "inspiration exists, but it has to find you working"
  • GKC also said "a sage feels too small for life, and a fool too large for it"; the fear of inadequacy (or even mere adequacy) is a powerful motivator
  • Don't be a "consumer" in the sense of the article Death of the Future - create the future you aspire to
  • A "refactoring" of two great calls to action: "ask not what the future can do for you; ask what you can do for the future" and "the more you do, the more you know what you haven't done"

I'll leave you with a challenge, take it or leave it :) The internet; the web; search engines; Google; ---. Finish that sentence.

Is it real enough yet?

Bloody chainsaw "joystick"

Evidently there was not enough joy from the standard GameCube controller - the new one promises more realistic mayhem. Bags of fake blood are optional.

And no, you can't get one to replace your USB mouse - yet.

Thursday Nov 18, 2004

Mars Attacks - Martin Fink versus Ben Rockwood

Mary Smaragdis's blog pointed this out, but I want to say some more about this.

It's pretty awesome to see folks like Ben Rockwood speak with passion and knowledge about open-source and operating systems. Not only that, he also uses the "choice" word which is unpopular with some folks.

Ben's blog seeks to correct the errors in a none-too-auspicious initial blog entry from Martin Fink. Yes unfortunately Slashdot threads are not the only venue that sometimes attracts the vocal but technically clueless.

Actually I've just seen Martin Fink's follow-up and I'm afraid it doesn't get any better than the first entry; this time it gives folks a mail address to post information about "errors" in his original entry. Martin, the point of a blog is that you get responses in blogs (and if you add a comments feature to your blog, you'll get responses there too). The downside of blogs is that one way or another everyone gets to see the follow-ups if you write something fake, stupid or simply wrong. And expect to "engage in tit-for-tat" as you call it, because if you write pseudo-controversial and ill-founded attack articles, you can expect to have your points responded to in living colour.

Monday Nov 15, 2004

Oblivious, but then ignorance is bliss

Adi Oltean's blog over on MSDN points out a brief but fascinating report hosted on the the American Psychological Association about a well run study that shows that poor performers over-rate themselves, which supports the old saw "the more you know, the more you know you don't know". Well, now you know.

But it's interesting to cross-reference that with a second article on the APA site which proposes that social comparison happens subliminally, and automatically.

Personally I choose to believe the first report because the second one appears to rely on snap judgements based on looking at photographs of people who are considered to be archetypically young (e.g. a baby), intelligent (e.g. Einstein) or beautiful, or their converse. It seems to me however that the primacy effect and a purely perceptual (rather than cognitive) classification plays too strong a role for that to be an effective predictor of a participant's day-to-day self image.

Been there, blogged that (and here's the t-shirt to prove it)

++ungood t-shirtIf your quest for geek chic should also reflect a concern for the rise of political correctness, the decline in human languages, or amazement at the continued survival of one of the C programming language's more endearingly terse features, you've got to have one of these t-shirts (now that's real literate programming).
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ColmSmyth

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