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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Link Dump
Yet another lazy post filled with links. Enjoy:
  • Love and Severus Snape: Eric S. Raymond's take on the latest Harry Potter novel nicely summarizes some of the reasons people think Snape will be redeemed in the next novel. He's got a few interesting twists to the standards as well.
  • Tameem's Edge Diary: Fascinating diary recounting how a small software company decided to write a next-generation game long before anyone else. Lots of details about how games are made, published and distributed. It's especially daunting when it's a small company struggling to make ends meet...
  • Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics - An index with lots of info on Physics and Feynman, including a series of audio lecture files by Feynman. It's funny, Feynman doesn't sound brilliant, but he clearly is.
And that's all for now...
Posted by Mark on July 31, 2005 at 07:48 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 3
Well at this point, I've pretty much abandoned any pretense at actually liveblogging. I finished the book earlier this week, but have been to busy to post comments. Unlike previous installments, this post will contain lots of spoilers, but I'll put them in the extended entry so as not to expose them on the main page...
  • Most of what I said in previous entries still holds true. See Part 1 and Part 2 (and the Magic Security post too).
  • It was rumored that a major, beloved character would die in this book, and it turns out that said character was Dumbledore. Honestly, this wasn't that much of a surprise, as people had been speculating on his death for weeks. However, the stylish manner in which Rowling pulls it off means that you really don't care that you knew he was going to die. Indeed, the entire ending sequence is masterfully orchestrated by Rowling, who was able to tie together several of the disparate plot threads in quite a dramatic fashion. Plus, as Nate notes, Dumbledore had to die in this book so that we get a full book of "post-Dumbledore Harry," a more mature and self-confident wizard than what we've seen of Harry so far (though we've been catching glimpses of the new Harry all throughout this latest novel).
  • Color me surprised that Snape turned out to be the one who did the deed. Like Nate says: "I always hoped that beneath his gruff demeanor and his obvious dislike of Harry was a guy who would do the right thing when the time came." Indeed, that sort of thing had already played out in previous books (1 or 2). In that final scene when it becomes clear that Malfoy won't go through with it and Snape arrives, I honestly thought he'd turn against the Death Eaters. I suppose the notion that Dumbledore would die wasn't a surprise, but that Snape was the one who did so certainly was. Indeed, the internet is rife with speculation as to the redemption of Snape in the next volume. Nate thinks it'll happen, as does Johno and a whole host of other people I've spoken to about the subject. I certainly hope it will happen, but look where that got me...
  • Unlike any of the previous books, this book really isn't much of a self-contained story, nor does it have any sort of definitive ending. The ending is, in a way, a cliffhanger. Not only does Dumbledore die, but we find out that the Horcrux that he and Harry had retrieved was actually a fake, left there by someone else (with the initials R.A.B), presumably someone powerful who is also opposed to Voldemort. An intriguing mystery, but one that won't be solved until the next book (there is speculation that the "B" in the initials stands for "Black," perhaps even Romulus Black, Sirius' brother). This book feels very much like The Empire Strikes Back of the Harry Potter series. In both, not much in the way of good things happen to our heros, but it's still a pleasure to watch or read.
  • It also looks like this will be the last book to conform to the standard school-year structure, as Harry searches for the remaining Horcruxes with his friends (and I'm sure others, notably Ginny, will find their way into the story). Throughout six books, Rowling managed to pull a lot out of the predictable progression of a school year at Hogwarts, but it should be interesting to see how the next book plays out.
  • One final, almost unrelated note: Much is often made about the length of the Harry Potter books. At 650 or so pages, this volume weighs in at a little larger than the middle of the pack. However, I was reading Beyond Fear this afternoon, and it seemed that I was reading significantly slower. With Harry Potter I read at a rate of about 40-60 pages an hour, while Beyond Fear sees at most 30 pages an hour. Then I looked at the type, spacing, and margins. There are easily two lines in Beyond Fear for every line in Harry Potter, if not an even more glaring ratio. Without such spacing, this latest Harry Potter book would have been around 300 pages or so. Don't get me wrong, it's still impressive that we're seeing kids reading these books despite their large page count, but I guess I was surprised at just how easy to read it was...
Posted by Mark on July 24, 2005 at 04:31 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 2
Well, I suppose this hardly qualifies as liveblogging anymore, as I've read over 300 pages since my last update, but such petty details notwithstanding, below are some more thoughts I've had while reading.
  • Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 1: My first post covers initial thoughts and approximately the first 200 pages.
  • Magic Security: A tongue-in-cheek, yet strangely serious evaluation of a security measure suggested by the Ministry of Magic, using a muggle method of analysis.
  • Two more Harry Potter conventions have made an appearance at this point: Quiddich and teenage romance. I've never been too impressed with the game of Quiddich, but its appearances are brief and they do play a role in some of the subplots, so as not to be disconnected or boring (as I sometimes felt they were in previous books). Since Goblet of Fire, the Potter books have had more and more romantic encounters. There is, of course, the romantic tension between Ron and Hermione, which is alive and well in this sixth volume of the series, despite Ron's boneheaded pursuit of Lavender Brown (and the resulting row with Hermione that results). It's getting increasingly obvious that they're going to get it on pretty soon (and it was obvious two books ago, so we're getting darn close to definite here). Harry, too, has a new love interest, but he honorably realizes that she is "out of bounds," and we have thankfully not had to endure much about that just yet. Harry, for his part, seems to have become quite mature and genuinely seems to have gained at least some self-confidence and composure, even under fire (a welcome change from his hyper-grumpy days in the last book). As the Michelle Pauli at the Guardian notes (warning: many more spoilers there than here) about the romantic storylines, Rowling is forced to compromise between raging hormones and a younger audience. It works reasonably well enough, but it perhaps leaves something to be desired. But at least she seems to be hitting a better tone with this book than with her previous effort (in terms of love interests and just about every other aspect of the story).
  • Am I the only one who finds the characterization of the Vampire Sanguini at Slughorn's Christmas party absolutely hilarious? It's but a few paragraphs (on page 316 in my edition), but I honestly would like to know more about that situation...
  • About 500 pages in, and it seems that Rowling isn't really going to tell a self-contained story here. I mentioned before that numerous sub-plots and mysteries had presented themselves, and that is very true (none more compelling than the glimpses into Voldemort's fascinating past), but there doesn't seem to be much of a narrative here. Oddly, it's working. This book feels like it's simply laying the groundwork for the seventh and final book, which one assumes will contain the penultimate confrontation with Voldemort. But again, it works and I find the pages flying by. The only reason I haven't finished is that I've intentionally been trying to draw out the reading of the book. Of course, much could happen with 100 pages to go. It's not as if we've learned very much about this titular half blood prince (though we've been given certain disturbing hints). I expect to be finished tomorrow night.
  • Horcruxes! An interesting, if not especially novel, concept. It strikes me that, unlike some other series, Rowling actually did have some sort of plan for these books. The Horcruxes don't seem tacked-on in the way that, for example, some things were in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. (Or, grandaddy of all tacked-on mistakes: midi-chlorians.)
More to come! I anticipate finishing the book off tomorrow night. Until then...
Posted by Mark on July 19, 2005 at 11:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Magic Security
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there are a number of new security measures suggested by the Ministry of Magic (as Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters have been running amuk). Some of them are common sense but some of them are much more questionable. Since I've also been reading prominent muggle and security expert Bruce Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, I thought it might be fun to analyze one of the Ministry of Magic's security measures according to Schneier's 5 step process.

Here is the security measure I've chosen to evaluate, as shown on page 42 of my edition:
Agree on security questions with close friends and family, so as to detect Death Eaters masquerading as others by use of the Polyjuice Potion.
For those not in the know, Polyjuice Potion allows the drinker to assume the appearance of someone else, presumably someone you know. Certainly a dangerous attack. The proposed solution is a "security question", set up in advance, so that you can verify the identity of the person in question.
  • Step 1: What assets are you trying to protect? The Ministry of Magic claims that it's solution is to the problem of impersonation by way of the Polyjuice Potion. However, this security measure essentially boils down to a form of identification, so what we're really trying to protect is an identity. The identity is, in itself, a security measure - for example, once verified, it could allow entrance to an otherwise restricted area.
  • Step 2: What are the risks to those assets? The risk is that someone could be impersonating a friend or family member (by using the aforementioned Polyjuice Potion) in an effort to gain entrance to a restricted area or otherwise gain the trust of a certain group of people. Unfortunately, the risk does not end there as the Ministry implies in its communication - it is also quite possible that an attacker could put your friend or family member under the Imperious Curse (a spell that grants the caster control of a victim). Because both the Polyjuice Potion and the Imperious Curse can be used to foil an identity based system, any proposed solution should account for both. It isn't known how frequent such attacks are, but it is implied that both attacks are increasing in frequency.
  • Step 3: How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? Not very well. First, it is quite possible for an attacker to figure out the security questions and answers ahead of time. They could do so through simple research, or through direct observation and reconnaissance. Since the security questions need to be set up in the first place, it's quite possible that an attacker could impersonate someone and set up the security questions while in disguise. Indeed, even Professor Dumbledore alludes to the ease with which an attacker could subvert this system. Heck, we're talking about attackers who are most likely witches or wizards themselves. There may be a spell of some sort that would allow them to get the answer from a victim (the Imperious Curse is one example, and I'm sure there are all sorts of truth serums or charms that could be used as well). The solution works somewhat better in the case of the Polyjuice Potion, but since we've concluded that the Imperious Curse also needs to be considered, and since this would provide almost no security in that case, the security question ends up being a poor solution to the identity problem.
  • Step 4: What other risks does the security solution cause? The most notable risk is that of a false positive. If the attacker successfully answers the security question, they achieve a certain level of trust. When you use identity as a security measure, you make impersonating that identity (or manipulating the person in question via the Imperious Curse) a much more valuable attack.
  • Step 5: What trade-offs does the security solution require? This solution is inexpensive and easy to implement, but also ineffective and inconvenient. It would also requires a certain amount of vigilance to implement indefinitely. After weeks of strict adherence to the security measure, I think you'd find people getting complacent. They'd skip using the security measure when they're in a hurry, for example. When nothing bad happens, it would only reinforce the inconvenience of the practice. It's also worth noting that this system could be used in conjunction with other security measures, but even then, it's not all that useful.
It seems to me that this isn't a very effective security measure, especially when you consider that the attacker is likely a witch or wizard. This is obviously also apparent to many of the characters in the book as well. As such, I'd recommend a magic countermeasure. If you need to verify someone's identity, you should probably use a charm or spell of some sort to do so instead of the easily subverted "security question" system. It shouldn't be difficult. In Harry Potter's universe, it would probably amount to pointing a wand at someone and saying "Identico!" (or some other such word that is vaguely related to the words Identity or Identify) at which point you could find out who the person is and if they're under the Imperious Curse.
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2005 at 12:21 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 1
Odd as it may seem, that is exactly what a curiously unnamed BBC reporter has done for the just-released Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. As said book has arrived in the mail today, I figured I might as well just follow the Beeb's lead and liveblog my reading of the book.

I'm no speedreader - the aformentioned reporter apparently read at a pace higher than 100 pages per hour - and I don't particularly want to finish the book that quickly, so this will most likely be spread out over the next few days.

Before I started reading, I read this summary of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (thanks to Nate for the pointer). I didn't especially enjoy that book. It seemed a distinct step down from the Goblet of Fire, and thus my hopes are not as high for the new volume (which, as I've noted before, could act in its favor). And so I give you, the first two chapters of the new Harry Potter book. Additional chapters will be added to this entry as I read them (new chapters will be on the bottom). I'll attempt to keep things vague, but I must warn: Potential SPOILERS ahead. (as of now, I'm two chapters in, and no real spoilers).
  • Chapter 1: The Other Minister - Unlike previous books (if I remember correctly), this one opens on a scene not featuring Harry. It contains a recap of some of the events in previous books, and it does so in a more novel way than usual (Rowling normally just kinda blurts out a recap, but this time she sneaks it into a scene, with characters informing a Muggle about certain events). It's a clever bit of storytelling, and it illuminates some of the previously vague Wizard-Muggle interactions. I shall be interested to see if the Muggle in question will actually play a larger part in the story, or if he's merely a plot contrivance (an excuse to recap earlier works), in which case this probably wouldn't be as clever as I though. I guess that's how the hermeneutic circle turns.
  • Chapter 2: Spinner's End - Things pick up a bit and Rowling unleashes the first twist of what is sure to be many. It's an interesting notion, but several years of watching the television show 24 have addled my brain to the point where I'm naturally suspicious of such revelations so early in the story. Of course, this really doesn't mean anything, but it does indicate a sort of diminishing returns in the series. One of the big problems with a story that you know will have a lot of surprises (though I guess I don't know that about this book) is that you're constantly formulating guesses as to what's going to happen, so that when it does, it's something less of a surprise. Of course, Rowling has deftly navigated this sort of obstacle in previous books (notably The Prisoner of Azkaban, my favorite of the books) and either kept something a surprise or executed a twist with such flare that you don't care you guessed it earlier.
  • Chapter 3: Will and Won't - Harry Potter makes his first appearance, followed by a more typical recap of events from the previous books and events between the last book and this one. Dumbledore also makes his first appearance here, saving Harry from his horrid step-family (the Dursleys) and the end of this chapter marks the real beginning of the story. As the BBC reporter notes, the chapter ends with an appropriate quote: "And now Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure."
  • Chapter 4: Horace Slughorn - All the Potter books follow a certain structure, but one of the big variables from book to book is the appearance of a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Dumbledore and Harry recruit this year's teacher, who seems to have a flare for recognizing and exploiting talent. Given the way Rowling portrays him, and given certain other facts about him, you can't help but be a little suspicious of the man. Things are getting more interesting, but we're still cought up in the preliminaries. So far we've had numerous recaps of the story so far, Harry's escape from the Dursley family, and a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Still to come are Harry's reunion with Ron and Hermione (ostensibly to occur in Chapter 5), the trip to Hogwarts, and the start of classes, at which point the real story begins.
  • Chapters 5 & 6: More Potter staples: The aformentioned reunion with Ron and Hermione (and other members of the Weasley family), a trip to Diagon Alley, and the inevitable run-in with Draco Malfoy. At this point I think I'm going to be abandoning the whole chapters thing, and just comment on something when I feel the need. I don't want this to end up being a summary of the book, after all. Additional entries will be by page number (indicating where I am in the book - the comments won't necessarily be about whatever appears on that page).
  • Page 138: One thing that keeps getting stressed in the book is additional security, since Voldemort is loose and wreaking havoc again. I think it might be fun to analyze some of the security measures laid out by the Ministry of Magic (as the book I'd been reading before I got Potter was Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear). Perhaps I'll tackle that tomorrow. All in all, after 138 pages, I'm quite enjoying the book. It's been a while since I've read over 100 pages in a single day (though I suspect that also has something to do with the size of the type and the page layout). So far, I'm enjoying it a lot more than I did the previous book, but the story really hasn't started in earnest yet (though things are set in motion).
  • Page 200: About 200 pages and 11 chapters in, the kids are back at Hogwarts and the story is now starting in earnest. We've had a few mentions of the Half-Blood Prince, Harry get's detention, and we learn some stuff about Voldemort's past. Lot's of mini-mysteries and subplots are popping up in a generally fun feeling atmosphere. None of that grumpiness that permeated the last book. It looks like The Guardian also liveblogged the book.
Update: Added thoughts on chapters 3 & 4. Added some more chapters after that, and switched to a different format.

Again Update:Added some more stuff. Will probably write the security entry soon, and will then start a "Part 2" of this post.

Update 7.19.05: Part 2 is up, as is the discussion on magic security I hinted at above..
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2005 at 08:15 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Security Theater
In response to Thursday's terrorist attacks in London, the United States raised the threat level for mass transit. As a result, the public saw "more police officers, increased video surveillance, the presence of dogs trained to sniff for bombs and inspections of trash containers around transit stations."

This is a somewhat sensible reaction, on numerous levels (though, ironically, not as much with respect to security). First, there is a small increase in security, but it also struck me as being more effective as a piece of security theater. In the NY Times article reference above, a police officer carrying a submachine gun is pictured. One of Kaedrin's 3 loyal readers wondered if that was really necessary. The truth is that it probably didn't provide much in the way of extra security, but often security decisions are made by those who have an agenda that encompasses more than just security. In Bruce Schneier's excellent book Beyond Fear, he calls this sort of thing security theater.
In 1970, there was no airline security in the U.S.: no metal detectors, no X-ray machines, and no ID checks. After a hijacking in 1972 ... airlines were required to post armed guards in passenger boarding areas. This countermeasure was less to decrease the risk of hijacking than to decrease the anxiety of passengers. After 9/11, the U.S. government posted armed National Guard troops at airport checkpoints primarily for the same reason (but were smart enough not to give them bullets). Of course airlines would prefer it if all their flights were perfectly safe, but actual hijackings and bombings are rare events whereas corporate earnings statements come out every quarter. For an airline, for the economy, and for the country, judicious use of security theater calmed fears... and that was a good thing.
I wonder if the submachine gun the police officer was carrying was loaded? I would assume it actually wasn't, as a submachine gun is about the worst thing you could use on a crowded mass transit system.

The important thing to note here is that security decisions are often based on more than just security considerations. As security theater, Thursday's heightened alert level reduced public anxiety. On a more cynical level, it's also an example of politicians and businesses hedging their bets (if an attack did come, they could at least claim they weren't caught completely off-guard). Sometimes, those in power have to do something quickly to address a security problem. Most people are comforted by action, even if their security isn't improved very much as a result. However, as Schneier notes, security theater is largely a palliative measure. In a world where security risks are difficult to judge, security theater can easily be confused with the real thing. It's important to understand such actions for what they are. At the same time, it should also be noted that such actions do provide some value, often extending beyond the realm of security (which can be important too).

Update: Minor additions and grammar changes.

Update 7.22.05: John Robb notes the added cost (i.e. the monetary cost, the inconvenience, the civil liberties etc...)of the extra security measures implemented as a result of the recent attempts in London, and how the costs have spread throughout the US. Robb also notes that Schneier himself has commented on the specific measure of searching bags. To clarify my comments above, I think the value provided by Security Theater is, at best, a short term value, depending on your perspective. Is that value worth the added costs? If you're a leader or politician, probably. If you're a commuter, probably not. Politicians and other leaders usually have a different agenda than commuters, and they're the ones making the decisions.
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2005 at 10:26 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Dear Britain
I'd been at a loss for what to say about Thursday's terrorist attacks in London until I saw this somehow appropriately obscure historical reference from Mindles H. Dreck of Asymmetrical Information:
"Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Even to the end."
For details on the attack, check out this comprehensive Wikipedia entry (an impressive example of self-organization in action). Also, the British Red Cross has set up a relief fund for victims of the bombings and is accepting donations.


Posted by Mark on July 10, 2005 at 10:03 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Alien Invasions
Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is a pretty tense affair. The director knows how to lay on the suspense and he certainly applies that knowledge liberally in the film. It's a good thing too, because when he allows a short breather, your mind immediately starts asking questions that can only have embarrassingly illogical answers.

Luckily, Spielberg's version of the infamous H.G. Wells novel focuses on one character, not the big picture of the story. This relegates the aliens in the film to a MacGuffin, a mostly unexplained excuse to place pressure on the protagonist Ray Ferrier (played competently by Tom Cruise). In this respect, it resembles M. Night Shyamalan's Signs more than other recent big budget disaster films like Independence Day. Its pacing and relentless tension make the film feel more like horror than science fiction. Unfortunately, there's enough pseudo-explanations and speculations about the aliens to strain the suspension of disbelief that is required for this film to work. I've found that I generally have more movie-going goodwill than others (i.e. letting art be art), so I didn't mind the lack of details and even some of the odd quirky logic that seems to drive the plot, which really focuses on the aforementioned Ray's relationship with his kids (and not the aliens). Ultimately, there's nothing special about the story, but in the hands of someone as proficient as Speilberg, it works well enough for me. It's visually impressive and quite intense.

Besides, it's not like the concept itself makes all that much sense. In 1898, Wells' novel was probably seen as somewhat realistic, though the Martians-as-metaphor themes didn't escape anyone. In 1938, Orson Welles's infamous radio broadcast of the story scared the hell out of listeners who thought that an actual invasion was occurring. Today, the concept of an advanced alien civilization invading earth has lost much of its edge, perhaps because we understand the science of such a scenario much better than we used to. If you're able to put aside the nagging questions, it still holds a certain metaphorical value, but even that is starting to get a little old.

No explicit motivation is attributed to the aliens in Spielberg's film, but in other stories it generally comes down to the aliens' lust for resources ("They're like locusts. They're moving from planet to planet... their whole civilization. After they've consumed every natural resource they move on..."). This, of course, makes no sense.

Space is big. Huge. From what we know of life in the universe, it appears to be quite rare and extremely spread out. Travel between civilizations may be possible due to something exotic like a wormhole or faster-than-light travel, but even if that were possible (and that's a big if), traversing the distances involved in the usually huge and powerful alien craft is still bound to expend massive amounts of energy. And for what? Resources? What kinds of resources? Usually "resources" is code for energy, but that doesn't make much sense to me. They'd have to have found something workable (perhaps fusion) just to make the trip to Earth, right? In the miniseries V the aliens are after water, which is an impressively ignorant motivation (hydrogen and oxygen are among the universe's most abundant elements and water itself has been observed all over our galaxy). Perhaps the combination of water, mineral resources, a temperate climate, a protective and varied atmosphere, animal and plant life, and relatively stable ecosystems would make Earth a little more attractive.

What else makes Earth so special? There would have to be some sort of resource we have that most other planets don't. Again, Earth is one of the rare planets capable of supporting life, but we can infer that they're not looking for life itself (their first acts invariably include an attempt to exterminate all life they come accross. In War of the Worlds, the Alien tripods start by vaporizing every human they see. Later in the film, we see them sort of "eating" humans. This is a somewhat muddled message, to say the least). And whatever this resource is, it would have to justify risking a war with an indigenous intelligent life form. Granted, we probably wouldn't stand much of a chance against their superior technology, but at the very least, our extermination would require the expenditure of yet more energy (further discrediting the notion that what the aliens are after is an energy source). Plus, it's not like we've left the planet alone - we're busy using up the resources ourselves. Also, while our weapons may be no match for alien defenses, they'd be quite sufficent to destroy much of the planet's surface out of spite, rendering the alien invasion moot.

The only thing that even approaches making any sort of sense is that they want Earth as a new home for themselves. As one of the few planets capable of supporting life, I suppose it could be valuable in that respect. Indeed, in Wells' novel, the Martians attacked earth because their planet was dying. Spielberg's film seems determined to kinda-sorta keep true to the novel, except that the aliens appear to have planned this countless years ago, which makes it seem less likely. But again, why risk invading an already inhabited planet? Some stories have emphasized that the aliens were doing their equivalent of terraforming (this is implied in War of the Worlds when Ray looks out over a bizarrely changed landscape filled with red weeds), which is a good idea, but it still doesn't explain why Earth would be a target. From all appearances, there are plenty of empty planets out there...

So the concept itself is a bit tired to start with. Movies that aren't explicit invasions involving a civilization like our own fare a little better. Alien & Aliens do a good job of this, as have several other films.

In any case, War of the Worlds is still a reasonably good watch, so long as you don't mind the lack of scientific rigor. It's a visually impressive film, with a number of sequences that stand out. And he really doesn't give you all that much time to think about all the flaws...
Posted by Mark on July 03, 2005 at 10:56 AM .: Comments (3) | link :.

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