Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for September 8th, 2017

Here are the reasons not to lock up people who come to shelters

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Radley Balko has a clear explanation:

Polk County, Fla., Sheriff Grady Judd is getting some heat for the tweet below, posted Wednesday morning. And rightly so.

Most of the criticism of Sheriff Judd’s tweet has rightly focused on its implications. If residents of Polk County heed Judd’s warning and stay away from shelters, and if Hurricane Irma hits Polk County with all the force and fury that’s expected, it seems likely that some of those people will be injured or killed. It’s an incredibly irresponsible thing to have posted publicly, and it’s indicative of a sheriff who’s more interested in being punitive than in public safety.

But I want to dig a little deeper into this, and look at who it is that Sheriff Judd’s tweet is targeting. For most people, I suspect the phrase “outstanding warrant” conjures up an image of someone accused of domestic abuse, an escaped felon or someone who jumped bail after an arrest for a serious offense. But the vast majority of people living under outstanding warrants got to that position because of one or a series of traffic citations, followed by an escalation of fines and fees stemming from an inability to pay.

The common refrain from people defending the sheriff on social media was some version of “If you can’t handle the punishment, don’t break law.” This was also a common response to the post-Ferguson reports (including here at The Watch) on the way fines and fees have been devastating low-income people in St. Louis County, Mo., and to similar reports about oppressive fines and fees in other places across the country.

In fact, it’s a common enough response that I think it deserves a detailed deconstruction. So here are a few things to keep in mind when we talk about people who have outstanding warrants stemming from low-level offenses.

— Speed limits are arbitrary, counter-productive and almost universally too low

Most of us speed. A 2008 Purdue University survey of Indiana drivers found that “21 percent thought it was safe to drive up to 5 mph over the speed limit, 43 percent thought it was safe to drive up to 10 mph over and 36 percent thought it was safe to drive up to 20 mph over the speed limit.” A 2002 study found that two-thirds of drivers said it was safe to ignore posted speed limits. Gary Megge, a lieutenant with the Michigan State Police who has researched speeding for much of his career, estimates that only about 10 percent of drivers strictly observe speed limits.

There’s good reason for this. Most posted speed limits are far too low. There’s a perception that most motorists will always drive 5 miles to 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit, no matter what it is, on the theory that most cops won’t take the time to pull them over for such a slight infraction. But that perception is wrong. According to a 1992 study by the federal Transportation Department, most drivers adjust their speed according to road conditions. Posted speed limits only factor into the equation if there’s a speed trap nearby. More importantly, there’s little correlation between traffic fatalities and raising or lowering the speed limit:

The results of the study indicated that lowering posted speed limits by as much as 20 mi/h (32 km/h), or raising speed limits by as much as 15 mi/h (24 km/h) had little effect on motorist[s’] speed. The majority of motorists did not drive 5 mi/h (8 km/h) above the posted speed limits when speed limits were raised, nor did they reduce their speed by 5 or 10 mi/h (8 or 16 km/h) when speed limits are lowered. Data collected at the study sites indicated that the majority of speed limits are pos[t]ed below the average speed of traffic. Lowering speed limits below the 50th percentile does not reduce accidents, but does significantly increase driver violations of the speed limit. Conversely, raising the posted speed limits did not increase speeds or accidents.

The authors studied a wide cross section of roads and highways, and found that on 90 percent the roads they studied, at least half of motorists were driving faster than the posted speed limit. These results have been confirmed in subsequent studies. For example, a 1997 study of Michigan roads by the consulting group TranSafety, Inc., concluded that:

 Compliance with speed limits was not necessarily an accurate measure of safety. Although more crashes occur in urban areas, as can be expected from congestion and the need to react to other vehicles, drivers seem to choose speeds similar to the design speeds for different types of roads. The research suggests that lowering speed limits arbitrarily does not affect traffic safety. Speed limits and speed zones would be more effective if they were based on geometrics, traffic characteristics, and safety benefits rather than popular conceptions.

Most traffic accidents happen not when drivers speed, but when motorists are traveling at widely varying speeds on the same road. If we’re going to have posted speed limits — and it’s not entirely clear that we should — the consensus among the engineers and academics who study this stuff is that the the optimal speed for safety and efficiency is known as the “85th percentile speed,” or as a Michigan State Police guide puts it, “the speed at or below which 85% of the traffic moves.”

But few states abide by the rule. That 1992 DOT study looked at 22 states and found that the average speed limit was at the 45th percentile, and on average was between 5 miles and 16 miles per lower than the optimal speed limit. The study found that when speed limits were lowered even more, accidents didn’t decrease, but more motorists sped. When the artificially low speed limits were raised, accidents decreased, and the motorists at the highest percentiles did not significantly increase their average speed to compensate.

It’s true that if the speed limit everywhere were 20 miles per hour, and everyone abided by it, the roads would be immeasurably safer. But that isn’t going to happen. And we simply don’t have the resources to catch every speeder. Even the most aggressive enforcement won’t catch everyone. In fact, more aggressive enforcement may make the roads lesssafe by altering psychology of drivers. As noted, most motorists are pretty good at finding a speed at which they can safely drive, given the road conditions at the time. But in areas of aggressive enforcement — think of speed traps where the posted limit may suddenly drop — there’s a tendency to stop relying on instinct and peripheral awareness, and spend more cognitive energy looking for speed limit changes and waiting cops.

So the empirical evidence overwhelmingly states that we’d be a lot safer if most towns and cities raised their speed limits to the rates at which most motorists drive.

Why won’t they? Because . . .

— Local governments need people to break traffic laws. They’ve grown dependent on the revenue.

Michigan is one of the few states that tries to implement the 85th percentile approach. But getting local towns and municipalities to go along has been a struggle. The blog Price Economics interviewed Lt. Megge about the problem in 2014. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 10:09 pm

The First White President

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Deeply felt and well stated, Ta-Hesi Coates writes in the Atlantic:

IT IS INSUFFICIENT TO STATE the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.

His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built. But long before birtherism, Trump had made his worldview clear. He fought to keep blacks out of his buildings, according to the U.S. government; called for the death penalty for the eventually exonerated Central Park Five; and railed against “lazy” black employees. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” Trump was once quoted as saying. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced Barack Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million in exchange for them), insisting that Obama was not intelligent enough to have gone to an Ivy League school, and that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.

It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.” The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages. So it was with a candidate who called for a foreign power to hack his opponent’s email and who now, as president, is claiming to be the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own. Only grudgingly did Trump denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, one of its former grand wizards—and after the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Duke in turn praised Trump’s contentious claim that “both sides” were responsible for the violence.

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

Continue reading. And do read it all. The above is just Part I.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 9:20 pm

Moving abroad thoughts

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After a certain amount of suspense, things are coming together, and the move looks increasingly possible. Any big relocation tends to involve a certain amount of trepidation, but by using Tom Gilb‘s sage advice, Early!“, we started quite early and over some months have a pretty good handle on things. Still, a big move, which I am earnestly trying to view as an adventure. Which it will be.

In two weeks from today, we’ll be in our new apartment. That’s a soothing thought: all the next two weeks will be in retrospect.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 8:54 pm

Posted in Daily life

To Solve the Biggest Mystery in Physics, Join Two Kinds of Law

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First, watch (or rewatch, more likely—it’s a popular movie) this 9-minute video:

Then read Robbert Dijkgraaf’s article in Quanta, which begins:

Suppose aliens land on our planet and want to learn our current scientific knowledge. I would start with the 40-year-old documentary Powers of TenGranted, it’s a bit out of date, but this short film, written and directed by the famous designer couple Charles and Ray Eames, captures in less than 10 minutes a comprehensive view of the cosmos.

The script is simple and elegant. When the film begins, we see a couple picnicking in a Chicago park. Then the camera zooms out. Every 10 seconds the field of vision gains a power of 10 — from 10 meters across, to 100, to 1,000 and onward. Slowly the big picture reveals itself to us. We see the city, the continent, Earth, the solar system, neighboring stars, the Milky Way, all the way to the largest structures of the universe. Then in the second half of the film, the camera zooms in and delves into the smallest structures, uncovering more and more microscopic details. We travel into a human hand and discover cells, the double helix of the DNA molecule, atoms, nuclei and finally the elementary quarks vibrating inside a proton.

The movie captures the astonishing beauty of the macrocosm and microcosm, and it provides the perfect cliffhanger endings for conveying the challenges of fundamental science. As our then-8-year-old son asked when he first saw it, “How does it continue?” Exactly! Comprehending the next sequence is the aim of scientists who are pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the largest and smallest structures of the universe. Finally, I could explain what Daddy does at work!

Powers of Ten also teaches us that, while we traverse the various scales of length, time and energy, we also travel through different realms of knowledge. Psychology studies human behavior, evolutionary biology examines ecosystems, astrophysics investigates planets and stars, and cosmology concentrates on the universe as a whole. Similarly, moving inward, we navigate the subjects of biology, biochemistry, and atomic, nuclear and particle physics. It is as if the scientific disciplines are formed in strata, like the geological layers on display in the Grand Canyon.

Moving from one layer to another, we see examples of emergence and reductionism, these two overarching organizing principles of modern science. Zooming out, we see new patterns “emerge” from the complex behavior of individual building blocks. Biochemical reactions give rise to sentient beings. Individual organisms gather into ecosystems. Hundreds of billions of stars come together to make majestic swirls of galaxies.

As we reverse and take a microscopic view, we see reductionism at work. Complicated patterns dissolve into underlying simple bits. Life reduces to the reactions among DNA, RNA, proteins and other organic molecules. The complexity of chemistry flattens into the elegant beauty of the quantum mechanical atom. And, finally, the Standard Model of particle physics captures all known components of matter and radiation in just four forces and 17 elementary particles.

Which of these two scientific principles, reductionism or emergence, is more powerful? Traditional particle physicists would argue for reductionism; condensed-matter physicists, who study complex materials, for emergence. As articulated by the Nobel laureate (and particle physicist) David Gross: Where in nature do you find beauty, and where do you find garbage? . . .

Continue reading.

And do read it. Later:

While many scientists praise the phenomenally successful reductionist approach of the past centuries, John Wheeler, the influential Princeton University physicist whose work touched on topics from nuclear physics to black holes, expressed an interesting alternative. “Every law of physics, pushed to the extreme, will be found to be statistical and approximate, not mathematically perfect and precise,” he said. Wheeler pointed out an important feature of emergent laws: Their approximate nature allows for a certain flexibility that can accommodate future evolution.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 7:32 pm

Posted in Science, Video

Vladimir Putin’s weirdly on-point analysis of North Korea

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Zack Beauchamp reports in Vox:

It’s strange to think of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a reliable source when it comes to geopolitical analysis. Yet when Putin talked about the US-North Korea nuclear standoff in a press conference on Thursday night, his assessment of the situation matched far more closely with what you hear from US experts on North Korea than anything that the Trump administration has said.

Putin’s core point is that the central strategy of US policy under Trump, Obama, and Bush — attempting to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear program — has now conclusively failed. North Korea now believes that its nuclear arsenal is its best deterrent against an American invasion, and hence will not give it up no matter how much the United States tries to push them.

“They see nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction as the only way for them to protect themselves,” the Russian president said during the Thursday presser, held at an economic forum in Vladivostok, Russia.

That isn’t the Trump administration’s view. Just this week, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley called for “the strongest sanctions” to pressure North Korea into giving up nukes “before it’s too late.” Yet the consensus position among America’s North Korea experts is that it is, in fact, too late: that nothing the US can do to Kim Jong Un could offset the deterrent value of his nuclear weapons.

“There is very little chance that we are ever going to talk this guy out of his weapons, and none of us who have been watching the situation closely for years really thought we were going to,” as Mira Rapp-Hooper, a scholar at Yale Law School who studies North Korea, put when I spoke to her this week.

Putin also noted that harsh American rhetoric — like Trump’s promise to respond to inflict “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on the North — serves only to escalate the situation. “It’s counterproductive to inflate this military hysteria. This leads nowhere,” he said.

This, once again, dovetails with what American experts told me in interviews. They believe that threats tend to inflame the North’s fears of invasion, causing them to respond with provocations and further development of their nuclear program.

“They’re responding to our threats, it’s tit-for-tat,” Dave Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, says. “Our policies are designed precisely to provoke the outcome we’re trying to avoid.”

Finally, Putin argued that the best way to handle the nuclear crisis going forward is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 6:13 pm

How the Netherlands became an agricultural giant

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Frank Viviano reports in the National Geographic:

In a potato field near the Netherlands’ border with Belgium, Dutch farmer Jacob van den Borne is seated in the cabin of an immense harvester before an instrument panel worthy of the starship Enterprise.

From his perch 10 feet above the ground, he’s monitoring two drones—a driverless tractor roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air—that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato. Van den Borne’s production numbers testify to the power of this “precision farming,” as it’s known. The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons. Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.

That copious output is made all the more remarkable by the other side of the balance sheet: inputs. Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.

One more reason to marvel: The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country, with more than 1,300 inhabitants per square mile. It’s bereft of almost every resource long thought to be necessary for large-scale agriculture. Yet it’s the globe’s number two exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass. How on Earth have the Dutch done it?

Seen from the air, the Netherlands resembles no other major food producer—a fragmented patchwork of intensely cultivated fields, most of them tiny by agribusiness standards, punctuated by bustling cities and suburbs. In the country’s principal farming regions, there’s almost no potato patch, no greenhouse, no hog barn that’s out of sight of skyscrapers, manufacturing plants, or urban sprawl. More than half the nation’s land area is used for agriculture and horticulture.

Banks of what appear to be gargantuan mirrors stretch across the countryside, glinting when the sun shines and glowing with eerie interior light when night falls. They are Holland’s extraordinary greenhouse complexes, some of them covering 175 acres.

These climate-controlled farms enable a country located a scant thousand miles from the Arctic Circle to be a global leader in exports of a fair-weather fruit: the tomato. The Dutch are also the world’s top exporter of potatoes and onions and the second largest exporter of vegetables overall in terms of value. More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands. . .

Continue reading. There’s lots more.

The photos at the link are amazing.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 4:34 pm

‘I Smell Cash’: How the A.T.F. Spent Millions Unchecked

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Matt Apuzzo reports on corrupt practices in the Department of Justice (which occurred during the Obama administration):

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy.

Need a flashy BMW for an undercover operation? Call Bristol.

A vending machine with a hidden camera? Bristol.

Travel expenses? Take this credit card. It’s on Bristol.

When The New York Times revealed the existence of the secret account in February, publicly available documents made it seem like the work of a few agents run amok. But thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap.

The spending was not limited to investigative expenses. Two informants made $6 million each. One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme. But far from reining in the spending, records show that supervisors at headquarters encouraged it by steering agents from around the country to Bristol.

Yet no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret. The Times intervened in an ongoing fraud lawsuit over the activity and successfully argued that a judge should unseal them. The documents tell a bizarre story of how federal agents set up shop inside a southern Virginia tobacco business, and treated its bank account as their own.

At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

THOMAS LESNAK, a veteran agent, operated out of a government office building tucked behind a Burger King in Bristol, a small city near the intersection of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Colleagues regarded him as fast-talking and likable. When he met suspects, he always came off as the good cop.

Mr. Lesnak specialized in investigating tobacco smuggling, one of the A.T.F.’s core missions. Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

The A.T.F. tried setting up front companies to infiltrate smuggling rings, but with limited success. Gangs and cartels were too smart to deal with companies that appeared out of thin air. Mr. Lesnak had a solution: Rather than pose as a real company, go into business with an existing one.

In late 2006, Mr. Lesnak persuaded Jason Carpenter, an established small-time Alabama tobacco distributor, to open a warehouse in Bristol, become an informant and let the A.T.F. operate alongside him. “We basically merged ourselves with a tobacco business,” Mr. Lesnak said last year in a confidential deposition.

“The idea was, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Mr. Carpenter said in a deposition. “And lo and behold,” he said, “they came.”

Would-be smugglers appeared, looking to buy untaxed cigarettes. Some offered cash. Others offered to trade stolen property or guns. Mr. Lesnak and Ryan Kaye, one of the agents involved in the operation, worked the floor. “It got to the point where we were, you know, warehouse workers as opposed to criminal investigators,” Mr. Lesnak said.

The A.T.F. allowed Mr. Carpenter and his business partner, Christopher Small, to conduct illicit tobacco sales in the hopes of catching criminals. Mr. Lesnak, Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Small declined repeated interview requests.

Normally, undercover operations run entirely on government money, from a government account that is reviewed by government auditors. But Mr. Carpenter was running a real company. Sometimes he worked for the government, sometimes for himself, and it was not always clear where the profits should go.

SO THE A.T.F. DEVISED A SOLUTION: When it was unclear where the money belonged, it went into a private account that Mr. Carpenter controlled. That kept the money outside the reach of Congress. Mr. Lesnak dictated all the spending and said he expected the government to balance the books at the end of the investigation. That never happened.

Mr. Kaye testified last year and was asked repeatedly who approved this arrangement and under what authority:

“I do not recall exactly who authorized that.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘authorization.’ I would call it an ‘understanding.’”

“No authorization was needed.”

“I don’t know of a specific law that authorizes those specific activities.”

The secret fund became known as a “management account,” and word spread quickly among A.T.F. agents that if you needed something, Mr. Lesnak could get it without red tape. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 11:35 am

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