The OSS and Ho Chi Minh

Book by Dixee R. Bartholomew-Feis. University Press of Kansas

The OSS and Ho Chi Minh

“Some will be shocked to find out that the United States and Ho Chi Minh, our nemesis for much of the Vietnam War, were once allies. Indeed, during the last year of World War II, American spies in Indochina found themselves working closely with Ho Chi Minh …”

Good book review. An enlightening short read. We trained Uncle Ho, and the fighters that became the Viet Cong, in guerrilla warfare. The international face of American diplomacy hasn’t usually been our Secretary of State, it’s been the Pentagon. Check it out.


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Addictions of Race, Privilege and Cultural Denial

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
By Peggy McIntosh

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks. – See more at blogsite

Author McIntosh’s candor and clarity of thought caught me somewhat by surprise. I have never read a fraction of the vast resources of literature and scholarly works on the subject of race. I have read enough to know that many Americans, including many white Americans like myself, are not only able to say with certainty racism is still with us, but exactly why, and how destructive it is for all of us in this great democracy of ours. My experience is largely anecdotal, but I have lots of it.

If you are or have ever been curious how crudely medieval views on race and culture have survived to the twenty-first century, a deadly virus in a modern world of both miracle antibiotics and people who choose not to take them, I think you will find Mcintosh’s full article a refreshingly clear read.
Continue reading

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Jimmy Wales and His Wikipedia Revolution

Some time back, the online tech blog Slashdot hosted a Q&A session letting readers post single questions to Jimmy Wales, founder of the vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wales would personally respond.

Below is one such exchange, on the unimpeachable infallibility of encyclopedic references:

Editing of Information
by sylivin

Q: Wikipedia has become so large that students and youth in particular deem it the official truth. As such governments, companies, and individuals will constantly try to spin that to their own advantage.

Do you believe you will ever be able to reconcile with governments in regards to information they deem classified showing up on Wikipedia and private citizens that consider articles about them to be libel? Or, perhaps, is that just a fight you will need to struggle against for all eternity?

A: Wales: Human beings will never stop quarreling. It’s part of the glorious nature of our species. Government will never cease being stupid and overstepping their boundaries. That, too, is part of the human condition.

The real question is: can open systems adapt and respond in mostly effective ways to deal with the worst of it? And the answer to that is clearly YES.


The Old Way


In the previous century, the standard reference works for home, school or library were “encyclopedias,” literally a circle of learning or course of instruction. Most readers remember the reference standard Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps appropriately, we’ve linked the topic to the Wikipedia article here.

There used to be many other encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, which focused on knowledge and learning from a slightly more national, occupational or educational-level perspective, not to mention specialty encyclopedias and dictionaries like Bartlett’s and Webster’s, or indispensable compendiums on professional subjects like medicine, science, and engineering. Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition in 2012. A subscription-model online edition still carries on.

Traditional encyclopedias were written by accredited subject matter experts, and edited by boards of other professional editors and academics, often drawn from the ranks of the university and college communities. Every effort was made to ensure article content was as objective and factual as possible, and to present “controversial” topics (such as the American Civil War) as historical recitations of documentable and footnoted fact, along with terse descriptions of the motivations and viewpoints of various opposing sides and viewpoints.

That’s how we came to regard encyclopedias as “gospel,” unimpeachable sources of fact as it were, at least insofar as it’s possible for humans to agree on facts and interpretations. Many a family argument used to be settled by referring to the family encyclopedia.

The problem with the static encyclopedia: the “accuracy” of the encyclopedic “answer” was sometimes dependent on the views and objectivity of the contributors and editors. And you might never know when this was the case, unless you were already an expert on that topic. An article on “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” would definitely read quite differently if prepared under the vigilant eye of the conservative University of Chicago, as opposed to the more liberal eye of the University of California Berkeley.

In defense of the bound volume, it is a static record of the period or era in which it was printed. I have an old Encyclopedia Britannica given to me in the 1970’s, missing two volumes, that’s about twenty years older than that. In preparing my 2002 Astronomy article “Stardust: Where do rocks come from?” I was startled to realize how little mid-century encyclopedias could tell us about supernova explosions, and how these seed the universe with the “heavy” elements that make life possible on Earth.

It’s not often we get a chance to save the Carrier Pigeon. Old bound and printed encyclopedias are a “state of knowledge” frozen in time. We rarely can find that online. Projects like Google Books can preserve those “legacy” volumes. In my opinion, at least, such projects should be supported.

The New Way

The guiding principle of Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is that, following the Wiki process, anyone can contribute to or update an article. There are controls, and there is oversight, most of it peer oversight. You can find a Wikipedia article on Harold “The End of World is Coming” Camping, but you won’t find an article asserting that there’ll be no need to pick up the kids after school, because the world will end at exactly 2PM.

Wikipedia says it currently hosts almost 4.3 million articles. If printed and bound, that would amount to 1,902 hardcopy volumes. I can’t get my arms around the number of Wikipedia contributors in a reasonable span of time, but it seems to be around a million a month, both first-time and repeat. Wikipedians seem to measure productivity in number of edits, not number of new posts. There’s a list of the top 1,000 individual “heavy hitters,” the highest of those amassing over 1,000,000 edits each.

When peer review hits the law of large numbers, some interesting statistical things begin happen for data reliability. It’s no coincidence Wikipedia, in its many international languages, is widely regarded as such a reliable and authoritative reference source.

Wikipedia “works” because constant many-hands peer review tends in the long run to correct inaccuracies and misleading or poorly written entries. If I happen to remember that the early Apple ‘HyperCard’ was a “scripting language” and not a full-fledged “computer program,” to give a hypothetical example, Wikipedia provides a way for me to update the inaccuracy.

If someone were to write an egregiously wrong, incompetent, agenda-biased, prejudiced or sloppy article, chances are it may start a Wikipedia flame war. As in the real world, eventually these anomalies sort themselves out whenever clearer heads finally prevail.

That’s why I think Jimmy Wales dropped the ball, or sold himself short, on explaining why open systems like Wikipedia are so effective.

Yes, again, where the topic can support different points of view and controversial differences of opinion, Wikipedia can be messy, just like the real world.

The difference between Wikipedia and the old printed and bound encyclopedias should by now be pretty obvious. Wikipedia has transparency and accountability.

The old system by its nature allowed for little or no difference of opinion. Once it went to print there was no way of recalling or updating the content. Anyone who ever tried to use the “annual update” volumes, as I once did, is likely to praise them as an effective and helpful research tool. No wonder we took those compendiums as unimpeachable. Any disagreement was swept under the carpet.

There’s a very good reason why printed volumes were called “bound.” Once you bought a set, your knowledge base stopped growing and evolving. Wikipedia is a NON-filterable knowledge base with an almost unlimited supply of subject matter experts. When there are disagreements, these are easily discoverable at a glance.

The person originally questioning Jimmy Wales about information editing obviously had government or corporate censorship and redacting in mind. While I don’t personally believe governments in free western nations have yet made significant inroads toward controlling freedom of online content on Wikipedia or of the press in general,  we can expect occasional interaction on classified information, such as pertains to military or national security. To the extent that might be true, it’s not necessarily likely we’d hear much about it. Corporate redacting must go through the courts and the libel laws.

Having said that, if it hits the national media fan, such as on the recent Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden affairs, or the 2001 Enron scandal, it’s fair game for Wikipedia, blogs such as mine, and other online and offline publications, and I’m not particularly worried about it yet.

The highly visible sporadic messiness of Wikipedia open source authoring is superior to the old system of institutionalized consensus and dogma. The “new” system is a stochastic process; a new entry starts out with bumps and warts, perhaps lacking the Britannica finished eloquence of Oxford verbiage, but with a clearly defined aim of providing useful information about the topic. With the aid of many hands, perhaps thousands over time, the Wikipedia topic quickly becomes a polished authoritative reference, and a superior one, for it is never frozen in a stasis of printed paper. It can always evolve and adapt to new information and discovery.

In effect, it became the first impeachable reference work that’s corrected real-time by the same processes that challenge it.

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Teaching to the Test

MULTIPLE CHOICE. Dick has 3 Junior Mints and 29 Red Hots. Jane has 17 Junior Mints and 11 Red Hots. Select the best solution below to convince your school officials that Dick and Jane will each end up with equal shares of both Red Hots and Junior Mints. NO ERASURES.

A. Solve for 1/2(x + y) = (10 + 40)
B. Quantities of different candy types have no mutual dependency. Just have Jane give Dick 7 Junior Mints, have Dick give Jane 9 Red Hots, and move on to the next question.
C. Jane gives Dick 1/2 of her Junior Mints and Dick gives Jane 1/2 of his Red Hots.
D. Teach to the test.

Last night I watched the PBS Frontline special “The Education of Michelle Rhee.” Rhee is an educator who rose to national prominence as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system – a new office created especially for her, which transferred direct power from the board of supervisors to Rhee.

The DC school system was – and probably still is – one of the most challenged in the nation. It shares problems common to many large inner-city school districts: kids from broken and low-income homes, horrible discipline problems, perfunctory attempts to prepare the kids for the next grade level, failing marks in the three R’s, and a demoralized cadre of tenured teachers who aren’t empowered to make meaningful changes within a seemingly hopeless teaching environment.

Rhee’s solution was simple: raise your kids’ test scores, or I’ll fire you. She also got tough on discipline. Essentially, she became the “Tiger Mom,” the dragon lady of the Washington D.C. school system.

Lo and behold, test scores started rising, slowly at first, then dramatically. Scores of tenured teachers found themselves unemployed. A victory for “tough love” teaching methods? Not so fast!

I heard no one actually SAY “teach to the test,” but teachers running scared for their jobs found that to be the only way to produce immediate results. Investigators later found an unusually high incidence of erasures on multiple-choice IBM computer card scoring sheets, though it was never proved who performed the erasures.

Kids were able to raise their test scores, on an average. Teachers were graded not on inspirational or innovative teaching techniques, but on class test scores. There was ideological method in the Rhee madness.

I wasn’t surprised that Rhee also became active in far-right Republican politics. She launched an initiative to fight the recall effort against anti-union Michigan governor Scott Walker. The philosophical dividing line between the Walker mentality and the rest of the world is that of “human capital” versus “human being” rhetoric. We are NOT just commodities, somebody else’s “resource.”

Be that as it may, what I didn’t hear last night were glowing testimonies from the students themselves. I didn’t hear from kids who’d suddenly acquired the learning tools and self-confidence to announce their goal was to continue on to college. I didn’t hear one expression of delight from a kid who finally “got” a difficult principle. I didn’t hear a single kid ask, “how can I find out more about this?”

It seems manifestly true that big changes need to be made in the philosophy and profession of teaching. Scapegoating teachers makes no more sense than scapegoating kids. It accomplishes no more than scapegoating parents: we blame parents, which in education is like embracing the chicken-vs-egg riddle as a viable solution. Since education is so heavily institutionalized, changes in methodology have to come largely from the top, which Rhee understood, but they have to enable students AND teachers to achieve their potential, which Rhee didn’t understand.

To my mind, teaching kids how to pick answers that best satisfy the educator score card is a monstrous perversion of the point and rewards of a rounded education. For demonstrating that we don’t have to accept dysfunctional school systems as inevitable, I’d give Rhee an “A.” For inspiring kids to acquire the one skill that makes all the others possible, that is to say a love of learning, I’d give Rhee an “F.”

And I’d fire her.

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Mercury in Our Drinking Water?

I was reading our 2011 Annual Water Quality Report. Trust me, this is one of the driest technical reports to the general public that you are ever likely to read. It’s mailed each year by our East Bay Municipal Utility District (EMBUD). By a sheer coincidence so random I deserve no credit for my discovery, the TV was tuned to a PBS Quest special, “Mercury in San Francisco Bay.”

There’s a hidden danger in San Francisco Bay: mercury. A potent neurotoxin that can cause serious illness, mercury has been flowing into the bay since the mining days of the Gold Rush Era. It has settled in the bay’s mud and made its way up the food chain, endangering wildlife and making many fish unsafe to eat. Now a multi-billion-dollar plan aims to clean it up. But will it work?

So, our San Francisco Bay annually flushes some 3,100 pounds of mercury out through the Golden Gate. Its principal source dates to the early days of the Mother Lode. Several rivers carry those compounds down into the Sacramento River. Mercury is not water soluble, but Methylmercury is. It’s a bacteria-generated trace compound of mercury found in all those waters. Although not normally considered present in hazardous concentrations, methylmercury is accumulated in the tissues of small aquatic animals and fish. Like other heavy metals, it is not metabolized. Smaller fish in turn are eaten by larger fish, and so on and so on, all the way up the predator chain. Sharks and largemouth bass are often too toxic to eat.

So what did I ever find in the EMBUD water quality report about mercury? Nothing! I checked more carefully. The report even cites trace levels of uranium (not mined in our area): the EPA target concentration is 20 pico-curies per liter, or less. All our water sources are less than 1 PCi/L. If EBMUD even lists uranium, why, then, no mercury statistics?

So, I went to EMBUD’s website. Plenty about water quality; a little bit about mercury in fish; nothing about mercury in drinking water.

Yet it’s plainly there. Now, we don’t get our drinking water from the Sacramento. Depending on the city we live in, we get it from the Hetch Hetchy, the Mokelumne, or regional reservoirs. In my area, we get it from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs. I haven’t fished Lake Chabot in years, but many people do.

I found a PDF from the California EPA listing CHEMICALS IN FISH FROM TEN RESERVOIRS IN ALAMEDA, CONTRA COSTA, SANTA CLARA, AND MARIN COUNTIES – INTERIM COUNTY HEALTH ADVISORIES.The report is on “elevated levels of mercury and PCBs” in those reservoirs.

“If you eat the recommended maximum amount of fish from one reservoir, do not eat any other fish during the same month.” For women of childbearing age, and children:

Lake Chabot: Carp (0) OR Largemouth bass (1) OR Channel catfish (4) OR Redear sunfish (4)

How does mercury get in the reservoirs, and what does it mean to we who drink it? The Upper San Leandro reservoir was not listed. Since we get drinking water from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs, I conclude there is a problem in both reservoirs since I have fished and hiked in both recreation areas. They are part of the same drainage.

Humans may not be in the fish foodchain, but we’re at the top of the predator food chain, AND we ingest and cook in a lot of drinking water. I caution the reader again, drinking a glass of water is NOT the same as eating a fish. The fish act as pollutant concentrators (think: toxin storage containers), from small snails to mosquito larvae to minnows and all the way up the chain.

Question of the day: Why is a water-drinking human not like a fish in water, even if we’re vegetarians? And why would EBMUD report on minuscule uranium concentrations, but not on the locally much more serious mercury pollution?


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Occupy Wall Street: Gone Rogue?

I picked up a free San Mateo Daily Journal yesterday when I joined a friend for lunch. There was a nice story on page 1 about some civic-minded Redwood City high school girls who decided to join a regional Occupy demonstration. They thought, by participating, they could make a difference.

“Students deserve the opportunity to discuss what they care about,” an organizer said. “Once you leave high school, life hits you like a ton of bricks and these students need to know about the troubles with the banking system and why cuts are made to education.”

There was some isolated violence. The real violence was in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere in the nation. Banks were vandalized, windows were smashed, police cars were burned, police were assaulted, and police and the crowd were at one point bombarded by a roof-top crazy hurling down long sections of heavy steel piping. There was no follow-up story on the high school girls, but I bet most were disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

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Telephone Opinion Surveys

The next time your phone rings and it’s a telephone opinion survey, instead of hanging up, consider telling them, “Sorry, you don’t meet our eligibility criteria” — and THEN hang up.

My mother used to enjoy public opinion research for part-time income and stimulation in her senior years. We spent many an enjoyable evening together over dinner, analyzing how surveys were conducted, how the survey scripts sometimes channeled responses into canned categories, and how much she enjoyed talking with other people who care passionately about our country and its issues.

So I always viewed opinion surveys as a valuable civic feedback mechanism, almost a birthright, and I tried to participate enthusiastically. But no more. This ain’t our mothers’ polite question-and-response era no more.

For one thing, the survey concept has been hijacked by the fundraising crowd. When you get a mail survey, for example, flip to the back page and see the donation checkboxes for $50, $100, $250, $500, $1000 or “more.” They don’t want our opinion; they want our money.

For another, the audience is rigged. Once, participants were selected by elaborate statistical methods designed to guarantee a truly random polling base. Now, they don’t even want to talk with you unless you meet selection criteria that practically guarantee you’ll tell them what their sponsors want to hear.

So, guess what: 99.5% of (Senator Snort’s) supporters say they’re voting for Snort this year.

When the phone rings, “What is this about?” and “How long will this take?” are fair questions. Telephone surveys are scripted to be evasive and misleading on both queries. Their first job, of course, is to ascertain whether they even want to talk with you.

Last fall I took a call soliciting my opinion on the economy. It should “only” take 20 minutes. I hesitantly agreed. Their first question was whether my age group was 18-25, 26-45, 46-55 or “above.” When I answered “above,” they thanked me for my time, said they had no more questions, and hung up.

Earlier this week I took a call on a phone that does not display caller id. They were sounding out respondents on the November elections. I hesitantly agreed. Their first question was whether I felt I’d “definitely not” vote in November, was “uncertain” whether I’d vote, or “definitely” would vote in November. When I answered “definitely,” they thanked me for my time, said they had no more questions, and hung up.

Now, I’m unlikely to even answer the phone if caller id indicates it’s a survey, but if I do, it’ll be to tell them “Sorry, you don’t meet our eligibility criteria,” and hang up.

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Predator: The Slippery Slope

We are still fighting wars with tactics better suited to World War II than Afghanistan. We use tanks even though we are not in the desert fighting Rommel. We use gunships even though this may take out a whole village to take down one insurgent, and we call that “collateral damage.” We send our boys overseas for three, four, even five tours, asking them to go into those villages and figure out which handful of Afghans are combatant Taliban. In Afghanistan, our enemy are in the villages because they live there.

In Bill Cosby’s 1963 “Toss of the Coin” take on the Minutemen vs. the Redcoats, the British lose the coin toss. They’re told “you guys have to wear red coats and march in a straight line” while “we get to hide behind trees and shoot at you.” We lost the coin toss in the Mideast.

In Bill Moyers’ recent in-depth interview “Moving Beyond War”, he has a series of interesting conversations with Andrew Bacevich, “a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who’s become one of the most perceptive observers of America’s changing role in the world.”

The following excerpt tracks that portion of their discussion in which they covered our increasing and controversial use of the Predator unmanned drone. Many Americans are asking if this tactic is moral. Does it divorce accountability from the military-political process? Perhaps, but does it save American lives? Here is the excerpt from the transcript:

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don’t think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

BILL MOYERS: Why didn’t it work?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

BILL MOYERS: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn’t cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded.

I don’t have any easy answers to the Predator problem. I favor keeping our boys out of harm’s way. That’s why I’m also for an accelerated withdrawal from a hopeless quagmire. I do not see Afghanistan as a unified country in need of defense or capable of benefiting from it, even if they asked us to stay, which doubtless they now will not.

But we all recognize that targeted robot assassinations are a slippery slope. Yet we never resolved our differences on CIA assassinations several decades ago. At what point do assassinations become immoral?

My take on Predator’s slippery slope is that “assassination” launches should be accountable to, and only authorized by, our country’s highest elected civilian leaders, never by military field commanders – however reputable and trustworthy. This kind of target must be a high-ranking military or paramilitary individual or unit, actively engaged in military hostilities against the United States or its armed forces, or poised to do so when it is too late to stop them by conventional means. The high-profile target must be non-containable by means of timely kill-or-capture. And the target may not be a civilian head of state unless the President determines an extraordinary and imminent threat to national or global security, such as a Hitler.

I draw a sharp line between targeted assassinations and calling in a drone strike in a combat situation. If no noncombatants are killed, and American lives are saved, I’m for tactical strikes. But I still resist the idea of uncontrolled field-level deployment. I believe Congress and the Defense Department should get involved in creating light-speed control and monitoring mechanisms, and high-level field commanders should have the responsibility for approving tactical strikes and reviewing results.

Remember, the United States will not long be the only nation deploying smart unmanned aircraft systems. It would be in our own self-interest for the United States to take the lead in defining clear-cut boundaries.

Bin Laden obviously would have been an eligible Predator target (though we took him out with our miraculous Navy Seal team). But Assad most probably would not be. For that, we need the United Nations. It is perhaps too soon to tell if Russia and China have committed to cooperative global efforts to reduce global atrocities, but their new-found willingness to go along with the UN’s Mr. Annan in pressuring Syria is encouraging. And, China has greatly facilitated efforts to pressure North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.

Concerted world cooperation and containment is the anti-terrorist weapon of the future.

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Three News Commentary TV Shows

1. Washington Week (McLaughlin Group, PBS): a moderate vs. conservative shouting match NOT moderated by panel moderator John McLaughlin. Usually features neocon journalist Pat Buchanan. I call it the “shouter’s show.”

2. FOX channel: Previously, I’ve seen enough unwarranted ad hominem attacks on this network that I don’t watch Fox. A friend recently told me he thought their news coverage had become “fairly balanced,” so I said I’d check it out again anyway. The news segments themselves seemed fairly enough presented, though with a higher ratio of sensational content than I usually care for. Last week, Fox had a half hour hosting Mike Huckabee. Huckabee much as labeled Barack Obama, our President of the United States, “stupid.” I’ll check Fox out again in another decade or so.

3. Belva Davis has hosted KQED (PBS) show This Week in Northern California for more than 19 years. I remember when Belva came to Bay Area channel KPIX in the 1960’s. At that time, there was still some national controversy about black women bringing news into white living rooms. I remember feeling that we should wait and see what kind of reporter Belva was. Over the years, Belva’s been a bedrock of calm Bay Area reporting of a hotbed of news and issues. Her mission was always to “bear witness” to events and let the viewer evaluate the content. Belva will be retiring in November. I for one will always miss her soothing and salient presence in a turbulent news world. Carolyn Jones of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an excellent article Belva Davis, grande dame of Bay Area journalism, and I recommend it.

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