So Saudi Arabia is splitting its forces in order to fight what it sees as the greater fight; they are reportedly sending around a thousand troops into Bahrain, at the invitation of the crown prince (my lack of capitals – after all, there are so many crown princes around this area, it’s essentially become a generic term).

Obviously these troops have been otherwise engaged in the last few weeks, crushing the few small-scale protests that have been ‘allowed’ in Riyadh.

Since it has become apparent that what come commentators insist on referring to as the ‘Arab Spring’ (mwahahahah, as in gymnastics, d’you see?) is more resilient than at first supposed, the key question this was always going to boil down to was: are there more loyal troops than disloyal ones?

The first thing to notice here is just how much these theocracies/oligarchies spend on their military. OK, we all know it’s going to be a lot. But according to the CIA’s suspiciously jolly-sounding ‘World Factbook’ (does it have pop-ups?) not only is Saudi Arabia the world’s 3rd highest spender on the military – as expressed by spend as a % of GDP, 10% in their case – but 6 of the top 10 are Arab Muslim states. Plus, one of the others is Israel – which you might say was directly linked to the others.

So I think it’s fair to say that these countries have all been preparing pretty thoroughly for some professional-level repression of their own populaces (unless Oman, at number one, were seriously considering invading Australia or something – actually thinking about it they probably wouldn’t go for one of the few places hotter than their own country. Maybe Wales then?).

The second thing to notice is that, in all of the footage of these current conflicts, from Libya to Yemen – no-one is burning their own flag in protest.

We will all have seen some ritualistic flag burning over the years, largely it has to be said of the American one. (Where do they get those flags from incidentally? How does owning a factory churning out the revered and yet flammable icon of the Great Satan sit with the ayatollahs?).

In those instances, whether consciously or not, those people recognise they are defiling the symbol of nationhood of another country. Simply, I think the fact they are not doing this with their own symbol means it’s not the nation that’s broken, it’s the administration of it. That is to say, the flag still means unity to them.

There is a lot of conjecture about how bad the replacements for some of these regimes may be, and in particular the contention that the resulting power vacuum will be a breeding round for further extremism. And yet – where are Al Qaeda in all this? There was a brief panic about the Muslim Brotherhood (which sounds more like a specialist barbershop quartet to me in any case) – but unusally for our media, that was largely founded in complete ignorance since the MB was founded in 1928 as a nationalist movement and has been essentially stamped on by successive governments ever since, trying to field legitimate candidates for election but prevented from doing so.

The extremist elements we have been trained to think of as the unified voice of Islam by televised idiots (‘Fox news: 7 days, 24 hours, 10 commandments’ – copyright Newsjack) are in fact resolutely anti-nationhood, anti-cultural identity.

The inhabitants of these countries recognise that much better than we do. They don’t want to win some eternal war of faith, and they don’t want to obliterate anyone – they just want to live somewhere where they can wake up with the same number of family members in their house as when they went to bed.

Is blogging journalism?

February 21, 2011

I should start by pointing out that I do not believe this blog constitutes journalism by a long shot. The only thing you could reliably infer about me from this blog is that I am incurably lazy.

But what about Ed Yong? He’s extremely well respected in his chosen field, writes an excellent blog on Discover called Not Exactly Rocket Science which won a big award, has 6,000 followers on Twitter, and he’s been published in places like the Guardian, Nature, the Telegraph, the Economist…

So he’s a journalist. Except someone in the University of Manchester press office didn’t think so, and bad things happened when it all got a bit personal. I’m not going into it here, because a) loads of other people have done so already, and better than I would be able to; and b) Ed himself has had an apology from the guy, and has generally been very level-headed about it. Everyone learns – although it did end up as a Wired article as well.

But the crux is that when more information was requested, there was a perception gap between an illegitimate request from ‘amateur’ blogging and a legitimate request from ‘professional’ journalism. This seems like a clash that is going to have to resolve itself pretty soon.

In this example, Ed is clearly a professional with a valid mandate to ask questions – the press officer had just never heard of him when he plainly should have done. But what if he wasn’t – was on no payroll at all, and his only outlet was a blog he set up & publicised himself? Would the University have been justified in telling this hypothetical individual that it was none of their business?

From the perspective of a press officer, this surely boils down to the available audience that the blogger/journalist is a gatekeeper for; if the blogger had no press pass, but a site traffic greater than a few thousand a day – which would now literally make them more influential than the Times website – then it surely would be worth the Uni’s while to manage them as a contact.

So, looking further ahead, I can imagine a world in which your ‘social score’ defines how companies and individuals respond to you. In the brave new dawn of IPv6 (more on this in another blog at some point) where every single thing with electricity could have its own IP address, then your digital ID online could be matched with your digital output; Amazon or eBay already know what you like to read or wear – now they could also know how many people listen to you online across all social spaces, and they could treat you accordingly.

And with near-field communication and other intrusions of the digital sphere into the real world, it wouldn’t have to only be online; imagine Selfridges kicking Madonna and 10,000 other people out of the shop because Stephen Fry walked in and they wanted to make his experience as positive as possible?


October 17, 2010

The most interesting thing about revolutionary new kinds of car propulsion, like in-wheel electric motors & hydrogen fuel cells, is nothing to do with the technology or even the environmental impact. It is the fact that it gives designers & consumers the opportunity to start completely from scratch.

With something like the original Audi etron concept, other than the (admittedly still quite lumpy, for now) battery pack, there are almost none of the packaging requirements that lead to the shape & interior layout of the humdrum carbon-buckets we all parp around in now. No engine (motors in the wheel hubs instead), no gearbox to speak of,  no fuel tank – nuffink.

Obviously car designers are playing it pretty safe in the short term – they don’t want to panic everyone with a whole new paradigm in transport, and at the same time confuse or damage the visual brand they have carefully built up over the many decades of conventional car production. OK, for some reason Renault are quite happy to, but most of the others aren’t.

But the really interesting thing here is contained in the idea of brands; every now & again a bored but fruity billionaire reawakens the essentially pre-war idea of coachbuilding, and commissions someone to build him a unique motoring icon on the chassis of an existing ubercar – gorgeous autoporn that still rolls over the  speed bump at the entrance to the yacht club.

But what if they didn’t need to – since all the oily bits in a car are no longer oily, and what’s more they don’t really intrude above the wheels anyway, then what’s to stop Audi, BMW and everyone else just making the base? Fast, frugal, but above all flat, you pop online and order whatever chassis makes the most sense for you size & cost-wise. Click ‘buy’, and the next step will be to decide which brand you want to be responsible for the outside and which for the inside of your new wheels – probably from a list of companies that this particular manufacturer works with.

Prestige car brands already basically operate as labels that say ‘I’m rich, rich! Now will you love me, mummy?’ (BMW X6) or ‘I’ve done fairly well, thank you for not mentioning it’ (Volvo XC60) or ‘I’ve never actually held money and went into the family arms business at 19’ (Maybach). So it’s not a stretch to imagine bringing other brands from outside the car world into play.

How about an Audi A1 etron chassis with a body by Apple and an interior by North Face? Or a Mercedes E-Class with a Mulberry interior and a nice subtle, grown-up outside by Gieves & Hawkes? We as consumers already see & understand these kind of relationships – Nike & Apple (music to run to) for example. Prestige car brands will still operate as labels – because you won’t be able to get Gucci seats in Ford Focus.

This will definitely happen.

Money for old hope

July 12, 2010

So the Times paywall has finally gone up, a month or so beyond the original planned date of introduction. It’s looking fairly slick too, although there have been a few teething issues with their own journalists getting frozen out.

The media & advertising industry have adopted their standard attitude to anything new; an initial flurry of excitement, quickly followed by complete apathy until either:

a) It is proven to be successful in one of a few hundred possible ways, in which case it simply becomes the new normal and no-one questions it (recent examples: anything to do with Twitter; user participation in the news – “record snow here in London, and to prove it here are some of your 44,000 photos of ruddy snowmen”).

b) It doesn’t really work for one of a few hundred possible reasons, in which case it becomes the new Betamax and no-one learns from it (recent examples: CEROS e-mags; Adrian Chiles)

I think media paywalls will eventually fall into category a) – but not in this precise guise.

Newspapers currently cling to a space in our collective heads that they no longer have the wherewithal to occupy. Firstly, scale – we still think of newspapers as categorising people, whether by class or political view (Guardian-reading communist, Sun-reading football hooligan, and so on). But the reality is only 20% of the UK adult population ever read a daily newspaper. To put that in context, more than twice as many people agree that, ‘yes I eat mature cheese regularly’ (a staggering 50% of the country), than do with the statement ‘I rely on a newspaper to keep me informed’.

The Guardian now circulates at almost precisely the same level as Marie Claire magazine. So why do we still treat one as an active political force and the other as passive entertainment? Why isn’t the editor of Women’s Own (with more readers than the Guardian) ever on a panel with Jeremy Paxman?

The other factor at work here is value. The Daily Mail in particular spends large chunks of its sweaty waking existence in attacking the BBC, constantly (jealously?) bemoaning any apparently slipshod use of license fee-payer’s money. And yet by any reasonable calculation you’d have to say that the BBC offers extraordinary value for money at just £142.50 a year – or 40p a day. For that you get everything from iPlayer to the Antiques Roadshow, the Today programme to a re-animated 6 Music. All with the recent added benefit of no Adrian Chiles. Amazing.

It certainly seems better value than the Daily Mail, which if we assume a regular purchase of 3 issues per week plus the Mail on Sunday, adds up to £156 a year. Which seems a lot just to find out the next instalment of Mail’s ongoing mission to categorise every object in the world as either causing or curing cancer, and even more so when you consider that all of their content is available online for free.

And so to paywalls. It may appear from the above that I don’t like newspapers  – but actually I love them. I love reading Charlie Brooker & Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, occasionally check out Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times, Oliver Kamm is brilliant in the Times, I like the Telegraph’s editorial leaders & sport coverage, and if I’m ever depressed then Richard Littlejohn never fails to make me feel better about the fact that almost no-one else on Earth is him.

But clearly I can’t/don’t buy every newspaper, and so to suit my snacking approach I just read each individual element, as well as all of those recommended to me by friends or linked in other articles, for free online – whenever I want & not just when  some people decide to roll out some dead trees really flat and stamp it on there, early in the morning.

I don’t want to pay £2 per week for the whole of the Times – but I probably would pay £5 per week for a syndicated collection of my choosing; this column from the Guardian, this from the Times, this cartoon from the FT (they have cartoons, right?).

The blanket paywall system is old media thinking applied to new media content.

Sorry for the massive delay in posting. I’d love to be able to say I won’t do it again.

Harrods has been bought by the Qatari royal family, the House of Thani,  for a reported £1.5bn. Which is a lot of money, but amusingly is even more in Qatari Riyals – 8.1bn.

The reason I think this is interesting is that it is yet another symptom of a reversal in the flow of value between the different conceptual regions of the world. Sounds exciting doesn’t it?

So it should. OK, so Harrods was clearly already owned by the Fayed brothers since 1985, from House of Fraser who’d owned it since 1959; it’s not like it was a salt-of-the-earth emporium run by Arkwright and G-G-G-Granville.

But consider how the shop (and the ‘fancy goods’ consumerism it fed) grew in the first place. Harrods actually started out as a small room in Stepney specialising in tea – which ranks with sugar, coffee, diamonds & timber as one of the world’s most politicised commodities. All of these My First Empire (TM) building blocks were fundamental in delineating the difference between the developed (like we’ve stopped – eerie) and developing worlds. Check out Dan Carlin’s excellent podcast on the topic.

My point is that the global model from the 15th century until 6pm on Thursday the 1st of December 1955 was essentially going to countries where the local definition of natural resource was something like “cunning” or “the ability to survive in a desert for 50 generations”, setting up infrastructure to systematically remove raw materials which were of little or no apparent value in their native setting, and then taking those materials home to create value out of them.

So the value creation was not in the mine but in the Cartier ring, not in the forest but in the workshop of Thomas Chippendale.

Fast forward to 2010: in a lot of cases, by no means all, the infrastructure of production is integrated into the economy of the country of origin. I’m not saying that the principal beneficiary of Brazilian logging are the Tupi indians whose house is now under the 40-tonne crane – I’m saying that the licensing fees and profit shares paid by commercial logging firms are in no small way responsible for the fact that Brazil is the world’s 8th largest economy by GDP. The point is that the gap between production & value no longer stretches across the world.

The fact is we in the Western world aren’t really in much of a position to create any kind of value – the UK alone owes more than £900bn, a number so big that’s ceased meaning anything numerical and practically become another language. Our banks – institutions founded on the principal that other people give them money – still can’t make any money, and the Euro looks frankly buggered (old economist’s term). There was a lot of crowing in Western media a few months ago about how Dubai’s dreams were in tatters – all because they have accrued a paltry £59bn in debt through the sheer scale of their investment. So they could lend us £800bn, and still be better off.. In fact we should try asking.

So yes, Harrods was already shiny enough to have attracted the notoriously magpie-esque attentions of the Middle East – but what about MGM? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, bona-fide Hollywood royalty, the studio responsible for some of the most successful films of all time – has managed to achieve a debt level of $3.7bn – about the same as Russia’s national debt (sort of). The new Bond film is being delayed until a buyer is found.

My conclusion is this: although the other major US media corporations are sniffing around, we now live in a world where is actively possible that one of the crown jewels in the Hollywood mechanism responsible for spreading the Word of Western cultural supremacy is bought up by the government either a Middle-Eastern islamic state or a Far Eastern communist totalitarian regime.

That is amazing.

Sunlight on the garden

April 17, 2010

[Some light relief in the sunshine]

Sun does lovely things to a mind. Chairs become more comfortable, or rather any sense of discomfort is disabled, transcended. Your skin tightens to form a perfect, supple map of your spirit; you idly trace the contour lines on an arm, a hand. What were imperfections are now silky places of interest, to be visited on gentle excursions.

You slide a sensitive fingertip over the tiny beads of condensation on a cold glass of wine, and watch industrious bees milk the flowers. It gradually dissolves the weekday mind – the mind which eternally hefts and swings solid, clanking thoughts like the heavy chains between important ships.

The mind that takes over is an insidious one, a slow-motion cascade to which you are only occasionally party. It is like a team of bright young detectives, all working after-hours on separate cases with great endeavour. Each one is the potential making of a career, a conundrum that others have already failed to unravel, and their ambition drives them forward. Anxious to please their well-respected chief constable, they shy away from presenting half-baked theories. The first anyone knows of their breakthroughs is when they arrive, bursting behind your eyes as fully cast capsules. Since you were witness to so little of the process of investigation, these intricate results simply slot into the mind as knowledge – how could you question them?

All of this industry takes place whist not a limb is moved, not even to flash away a flying nuisance. The cases are solved softly, one at a time and with a calm irregularity.

Eventually some vital but unknowable ingredient of your pacific environment changes – an animal arrival, a human departure. Though the policemen are gone, back to their routine responsibilities, and you have snapped back into life’s steady pace, the work they have done stays with you.

Daimler in distress?

April 8, 2010

Should we be surprised that Daimler are already courting another corporate partner? After all, it’s hard to see how the previous relationship with Chrylser could have ended in a worse fashion.

But the simple fact is that the economies of scale in development & production, as well as the increasingly key group CO2 emissions, are just too big to ignore.

However, shouldn’t Nissan-Renault exercise some caution here? In a fairly astonishing case brought in America, Daimler have agreed to pay $185m in fines in order to settle a corruption case that covers at least the last 11 years.

It seems they were systematically handing over cash in exchange for contracts across 22 different countries – including in one particularly impressive case the gift of two armoured vehicles to one individual official in Turkmenistan. How did he manage to hide them? Surely the least subtle instance of company car park one-upmanship – “Nice 3-Series, Murik.. I parked on top of it.”

Everyone involved is terribly impressed with Daimler’s complicity in the investigation and generally seems at pains to point out how lovely they are. [From the Independent article covering the story]: ‘Prosecutor John Darden added that Daimler had “showed excellent co-operation. The company has undertaken an effort to clean its own house. That reflects a serious change of mind on part of Daimler. This deserves credit.’

In as much as they had any real choice, I suppose this does deserve credit.

But according to Deutsche Welle, Daimler gave out about 41m Euros in bribes between ’98 and ’08 – and in that same period “the deals earned the company 1.4bn Euros in revenue and at least 69bn Euros in allegedly illegal profits.”

So a pretty good deal then, albeit a distinctly shady one if it could be described as a policy decision.

On the other side of the fence, Carlos Ghosn – world-acclaimed saviour of Nissan & Renault and general all-round business good egg – once said: “I think that the best training a top manager can be engaged in is management by example. I want to make sure there is no discrepancy between what we say and what we do. […] Don’t believe what I say. Believe what I do.” (Thanks to for the quote)

Hmmm. Do I detect an impending clash of management philosophy? That’s certainly what happened last time – Peter Schneider says that “The Germans [Daimler] found out Chrysler only planned ahead for four months on many issues, whereas the Germans planned ahead for almost 10 years on virtually everything”.

All in all, I can see the proposed partnership between Nissan-Renault & Daimler failing just as spectacularly as the Chrysler relationship did. It might take a while to do so, and actually I really hope it doesn’t – because I admire Carlos Ghosn and what he has achieved. But it’s hard to see how two such apparently distinct company ethoses (ethi?) can be reconciled, just because both parties need to make seatbelts & steering wheels.

The sticky pole

March 19, 2010

Why does anyone want to be a politician now?

There are a number of factors counting against it as an attractive career: comparatively poor salary (one reason it seemed acceptable to top it up with expenses); general mistrust – if not downright dislike – by the public at large; unsociable hours & travel; astonishing bureaucratic lethargy; etc.

However there are two really big ones that stand out for me, and there is something to be learnt here.

1) They all seem mediocre, because no-one really believes that they sign up in the name of public service. We tend to think of them as middle managers who’ve slipped sideways, in it for the duck islands because they couldn’t get onto the Boots grad scheme.

I have to say I don’t hold with this; if nothing else, look at the battery of reasons to do any other job. I believe only a genuine sense of duty, a desire to improve and to shape, could get someone over that hurdle. I’m sure that’s not always how it pans out, but I think it’s a valid hypothesis for a starting line.

You might say that power is an alluring bauble, but it is plainly evident to any observer, potential applicants included, that any power that does come is extremely hard to achieve and obviously very unwieldy. I don’t think anyone thinks that you can start banning people called Gerald and cut all diplomatic ties with the Shetland islands in your third week.

2) In our public lives, we as a country have become physically allergic to failure.  This is dangerously insane – learning lessons this way is the fundamental reason humans have risen to our status as Earth’s pre-eminent monkey, and we all constantly do it in our own, private lives.

I see this dichotomy every day; we can run a tactical online ad campaign, and discover that one particular site or format just doesn’t perform. We don’t run around screaming, or write to the Daily Mail and demand the nostril hairs of the buying team are plucked out one by one. We compile the results, establish what works and then repeat that bit. Of course we do.

I fail to see the difference between this and PFI IT schemes, or ID cards, or buying helicopters.

OK, so in the public realm then the money being apparently wasted is our money – but in my private realm, the money being spent is my client’s, so I am immediately and constantly accountable.

There is a separate issue of doing it once and failing to learn the lesson – and of course that should be highlighted as failing to perform, just as we should be slapped for recommending a website that has not delivered time & again.

There is a management concept specifically called ‘rewarding failure’ – because if you don’t accept that not everything will work, then you will never try anything new and your company will wither & die. It’s not like this is new news.

So why would you be a politician? Everybody starts off hating you as a matter of course, assumes you’re an imbecile, you can’t really get much done – and in any case if you try anything new then you will be burned as a witch.

Lesson: give people who at least should be helping you the benefit of the doubt, and be prepared to learn that some things don’t work.

We cannot recall

March 15, 2010

There are two interesting things about Toyota’s epic recall-a-thon:

1: They are not alone in recalling cars on a large scale. So far from alone, in fact, that they should get some badges and a special jacket made, and elect a club secretary.

2: They have handled it really, really badly.

To look at the first point, an instructive 15mins spent reformatting the list of all car recalls ever issued in the US from the NHTSA here shows you very quickly that pretty much every car manufacturer you can think of does this all the time. In 2010 alone, so far 22 different proper car marques have issued recalls in the US – more if you include Ford, Chrysler & GM!

Only joking – actually no I’m not. Anyone would think that the US media canon wasn’t very happy about Toyota taking over GM’s world number one spot… I must have missed the torrent of panic & opinion about the Chrysler 300 saloon’s wheel nuts being recalled, or the instrument display of the Jeep Grand Cherokee [both listed as 2010 recalls above].

Anyway, the point is everyone does this, all the time. Are they as serious as Toyota’s issues potentially are? Not always, but definitely sometimes.

So why is this such big news now?

Along with no doubt a number of other important factors, one reason is my second point; how was this issue fumbled so badly by such a massive company? The presumption here is that massive companies are more prepared & well fortified from a communications perspective. That may sometimes be the case, but often the reality is that it becomes another process, just like ordering new wheel nuts or instrument clusters.

In the case of Toyota, one of the things that happened was that this issue blew up 10 days before a scheduled fortnightly PR meeting – meaning no-one did anything until the process told them to. After all, you don’t want just-in-time automated systems ordering more wheel nuts whenever they fancy. And all those fancy haircuts at the PR agency are just another supplier, aren’t they?

So there was a big gap, which inevitably got filled with the opinions of everyone who could be bothered to give one. When President & CEO Akio Toyoda (yes, relation) did make a statement, he immediately personalised it by being ‘deeply sorry’ about everything – rather than appearing in control of what had caused the situation. And then he drove off in a nice big, safe Audi

Things to learn here:

1) People don’t hang around waiting for you (as the official brand) to tell them what actually happened; they will form conclusions based on the available evidence, and if you’re not there when that happens – tough.

2) Embrace all dialogue. Imagine you’re a Prius owner that gets an email from Toyota, before there is a story at all, saying ‘It’s no big deal, but because we’re so safety-minded and curious, we’d like to check our solution to the problem everyone has – of making cars stop & go – is still the best one in the market. So come and say hello and we’ll give you a free [insert anything of value here]’. It’s the same solution, but doesn’t totally destroy your brand’s core value..

3) Buy an Audi.

Clifford Stoll wrote a an essay in 1995 explaining why the internet will fail. This has been unearthed recently by the ThreeWordChant blog, and discussed on BoingBoing – and most likely elsewhere too, especially in the form of the accompanying contemporary book ‘Silicon Snake Oil’.

Obviously, this kind of stuff is fun and common grist to the tech press mill – it being eminently satisfying to us sat in the future, looking at the internet. But actually, there something more interesting in this as well.

Stoll was an internet professional before most people knew that existed as an option; he caught hackers. In other words, he was pretty close to the technological coalface.

Bearing that in mind, let’s look at what he actually said – along with the developments that have negated his reasons for pessimism at the time:

“Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading” [search engines – Stoll is writing at pretty much the exact launch of the consumer-facing search tool, starting with Lycos then AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and then Google in 1998]

“You can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure” [fundamentally, the relentless downsizing of components is the key here, but also the development of Amazon from its launch at this exact point in 1995 to becoming America’s biggest online retailer]

“Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee” [everything from Skype & IM to blogging and social networks]

“And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?” [about a billion people – as of October 2008, about one quarter of employees visit Internet porn sites during working hours according to Nielsen Online]

“We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. ” [this covers pretty much the whole internet, but certainly PayPal,, eBay, all the obvious e-tail candidates]

Now imagine that instead of a negative article, decrying the lack of these things, instead Stoll had written a positive one – listing the necessary waypoints the internet would need to accomplish on its journey to omnipotence.
He would rightly be considered the father of internet commerce, and there would be statues of him in every town. OK, maybe not every town – but certainly Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps in Second Life too.
My point is – he actually understood very well the physical specification of a successful internet. He listed precisely what would need to happen in order for it to embed completely into peoples lives.
As Jonathan MacDonald says, assumptive certainty is more dangerous than unpredictability.
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