jay's old blog

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Typewriters - Tablets - marathon writing

One of those images that stays with you when one thinks of a person who writes stories, novels, would be some guy wearing glasses, hammering away at the type writer like it’s the last day of its rental period. Back when I was a kid, I always thought writing would be a fascinating profession to be in. I even wrote short stories and distribute it among my classmates. I also would get over excited at the prospect of participating in writing stuff, especially in story writing competitions, although most of stuff either went over their head, or more likely, I just was plain bad. 

Of course, I never did anything with it because nobody would read (except when I implore them to) my stuff, and writing only led to more mockery and related incidents. Still though, I sort of never gave up on it, and even took lessons of typing in actual physical keyboards. It was…pretty cool. The nice thing about type writers is that they were the complete package for writing. The whole thing was powered mechanically, so one did not have to depend on a power source. Mistakes would mean, having to re-type the entire page. Then, there is something very satisfying about that sound that comes, every time the keys are pressed…tat-tat-tat-tat…its just amazing. 

Obviously, for so many obvious reasons, none of us type on typewriters anymore. We have laptops and computers now. I have been blogging for a while now, and even self-published a novel. Of course, I have been writing my second novel for some time now. When I look at my diary, I notice that I have been writing my novel for almost 6 months now with only 11 chapters written. I don’t think I have writer’s block but rather, I realized that perhaps I simply don’t have the necessary infrastructure. Hence, I decided to build the necessary infrastructure at the best possible cost and for results. 

I needed something that will be go with me, wherever I go. That means, it has to be functional despite lack of ready power access. It has to be not bulky. I should work with cloud services, allow me to do research and so on. The simplest answer would be a laptop. However, the laptop keyboards are just not designed with typing in mind. The keys are small, and the budget laptops have some of the worst keyboards I have ever seen. Not their fault, because they have to cut corners and keyboards are the readily available culprit. Of course, the trackpad that comes with such laptops are horrible and will be my ticket to losing my thumb sooner rather than later. 

That rules out laptops. By extension, that also rules out PCs. 

That is when, I realized that perhaps, all I need is a simple tablet. I already owned the rather expensive Microsoft Keyboard and Mouse. These two bad boys work with any device that has an operating system and blue tooth. Tablets are essentially cheap, so I can replace them every few months. They are also easy to carry, the weight issue is solved. Further, Microsoft’s Office suite for tablets is so amazing, I cannot see the difference between the PC and the tablet versions. Of course, the Microsoft keyboard I have comes with a case, which also doubles as a stand. So, no need to invest in a separate tablet stand for easy usage.

Overall, I realized that my dedicated writing (and reading) device can be a basic tablet. I opened Amazon and typed in Tablet, simply went for the first option that was available. For a cool sum of three thousand and five hundred rupees, I got the device. I am writing this blog post on the very tablet, with almost no loss of typing or productive efficiency. I have my writing machine, and it meets all my needs.
Now that I have my writing machine, perhaps it is time I finished my second novel. Each week, I have been making notes on top of notes, and may be, just, may be, I am becoming too involved with the characters. Every week, the mind comes up with new stuff, that seems to make the story better. However, perpetually making something better also means, ending up in some kind of a development hell scenario. I don’t want that. So, today, as I write this, I am going to freeze all new additions to the novel, and start writing it. Hopefully, I will wrap it by the end of this month. At least the first draft if not the final publication. 

On a last note, despite being a Microsoft guy in terms of what I do for earning money, I am beginning to see the all around appeal of Google and the impact it’s operating system i.e. Android has on the mobile world. For as little as 3500/- rupees, I have a productive machine that can do most of the things I want a device to do. Sure, this device will die in a few months. However, even the cheapest windows tablet costs 9000, and that still does not run all the essential apps. When you take that into consideration, I can see why Microsoft is worried about Android, and why it lost more than just market share when it went lazy with it’s mobile windows OS. 

So yeah, I need to do some marathon writing and finish my second novel, pronto.  

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Elementary - Season 1 - Realistic Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, the character as described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is a timeless guy. His skills are such that they can be applied to any setting, any timeline and it is possible to make it work. Further, the character is public domain and that folks can just use his character and other elements (although media companies usually make a deal with the Doyle estate to be on the safer side) in their own creations.

That brings us to Elementary, which takes its own spin on the material. Obviously, comparisons to the other, much more popular Sherlock at BBC is obvious, but I am not going to do that here. In Elementary, there are major changes. As far as I can tell, this Sherlock is just not as gifted as his book counterpart. That also means, his companion Watson is not as dumb as in the books either. Yes, Watson is a female now, so there is that 'unresolved romantic tension' throughout, intentional or otherwise. Same goes to (spoilers!) the primary villain, Moriarty, who is also a female. With Moriarty, the romantic tension is not just resolved, but it has gone way beyond that to the physical realm as well.

The setting is no longer London but USA. This brings in a new set of police officers who do their best to keep up with Mr. Holmes. The crimes are simpler, more everyday, but they have to be because this is regular TV programming with 20 plus episodes every year. Most of the time, simply looking at the guest actors in each episode as the credits roll, is enough to tell who committed the crime. This removes some of the suspense (but that is the nature of television) but the fun comes down to finding out how the crime fighting duo manage to solve the crime.

There is no season wide arc, with each episodes being almost self-contained. One could pick up any episode and watch it in any order without losing much in terms of narrative threads. The Holmes-Watson relationship also takes a while to build, but it seems like a lot of stuff is being kept aside, personal stuff especially, for later episodes and for the sake slow character development. Since the series is not exactly special event, the actors do their best. Both Holmes's and Watson's are good. Nothing quite memorable but nothing too disappointing either. Of course the camera work gets a lot of mileage out of Lucy Liu's insanely gorgeous legs, but you know, television and male gaze stuff.

The series makes a lot of compromises but has just enough stuff going on to keep one interested. Off to Season 2, I go.

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Chinatown - detective noir at its best

Raymond Chandler is my favorite author for a reason. The guy defined the hard boiled detective genre with his Phillip Marlowe character, and to this day, every other creator can only aspire to reach what he did. Although the private detective genre is well known, it is also very difficult to pull off. When it is done well, it is awesome. When it is not done so well (for instance, this Bakshy movie I wrote about recently) it essentially becomes a chore. This applies to written noir as well as visual noir as in movies and television shows.

Chinatown, thank god, falls on the side of excellence. As I watch it, it almost felt like Jake Gittes (It's Gittes, not Gitts) is a distant relative of Marlowe, or perhaps they are the same character from alternative universes. Chinatown has all the tropes of the noir stuff. You have a detective who makes money off cheating wives (and he also investigates cheating husbands too), very snarky and talks and behaves like he has seen the dark side of the world. He gets beaten as often as he lands a punch. While he is not against doing illegal stuff, he also lives (and willing to die) by his own sense of moral code.

The moral code part...that is the defining characteristic of any private detective. Something that is amiss in a lot of would be private detectives. Jake though, he is not got his moral code tight and never ever breaks it. The narrative here has the usual petty crime that eventually connects to a larger, greater crime that is way beyond the scope of the single man. That is how it is, always. Noir is about heroes who find themselves discovering that they are not special. A lot of times, there is very little private detectives can do to influence the outcome.

There is always that female (or females) that have a profound impact on what happens to our protagonist here. The femme fatale here is not as dangerous as others here, but he remains wary. Rightly so because, what we have is an experienced private detective and he will have his share of disappointments. Then, there is the presence of an ominous villain. A villain who is always too big to fall, and seems to have negotiated a deal with the devil so that he is beyond the grasp of human made laws. A villain who has exploited subtle weaknesses and even when caught, knows that there is nothing anybody can do. Such is the tale here, and Jake knows that there is only so much he can do.

That is why, when the credit rolls, we are stuck with an ending that will stay with Jake, and us the viewers, for a long time. All is said and done, there is not much he could do. There is not much anybody can do. There lies the magic of Chinatown. The futility of life itself. Sometimes, the powers that be, are in fact too powerful and one person cannot make a difference.

Two things stand out in the movie. The director, Roman Polanski (who does an insane cameo at one point) has done an excellent job. The camera work is excellent, the music cues that hint at things, and the way the whole thing is tightly managed, just incredible. This guy is the dude and if only he could adapt the novels of Chandler, that would be amazing. What makes the story come truly alive is Nicholson. I already admire that guy from the Batman movie (and it is not surprising that he got first billing in that one) and this movie shows why he deserves all the praise that he gets. The snark, the charm, the dialogue delivery and finally the blue screen of death he experiences...totally powerful stuff.

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2016 to 2017 - of setbacks and successes

As 2016 draws to its timely end, I felt compelled to blog about what a fantastic year it was. For me, this year was the end of an important phase of my life. A phase that started when I told a boss of mine in 2012 that I am finally ready to reign in complete control of my professional and personal life, and that means, taking some drastic stuff. Then, against almost everybody's wishes (parents, friends, female acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors, landlords, shopkeepers, housemaids, drivers, that guy at the supermaket and not to forget that super hot HR who took the exit interview and got an earful about how the entire system is rigged against performance), I decided to carve my own style of profession and a way to earn money to pay my bills.

The story from 2012 from 2016 will probably come out in an autobiographical book some day, but for now, I know that I have had an interesting life. Not an entirely happy life but an interesting life for sure. I have so many odd experiences, I could sit and write about it for 1000 pages and still have something left to write another 1000 page. I dont know how many can claim to have hundreds of interesting stories to tell, but i sure can.

All in all, what started in 2012 reached a mostly happy ending this year, and that is why, I have hope. Hope that if you persist enough, perhaps it is possible to do what one sets out to do. Hope that sometimes, the only investment you need to have is an unshakable conviction that if you sacrifice (and compromise enough), stuff can happen. For the last 4 years, a lot of folks have helped me out but five individuals come to my mind, and this is my thank you to them.

  • my mom, well, for all that is good and great about my life.
  • my professor mentor who I met almost 10 years ago. Thanks to him, for the green.
  • my tech mentor who I met almost 4 years ago. Thanks to him, for the tech.
  • my friend who I met almost 10 years ago. Thanks to her for the green and food.
  • my friend who I met 5 years ago. Thanks to him, for the green and food.

As the year 2017 rolls into my view, I am filled with optimism and hope. Of course, as one ages (I am well past my youthful days now, and perhaps already missed my wedding date in the one way street that is life), one gets hit by a healthy dose of reality check almost everyday.

Still though, like the good people in middle earth say, there is always hope.

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Weeds - Season 1 - interesting insight into the weed culture

The thing about sitcoms is that, they are sitcoms. They have to follow a template, whether they like to or not. you take a bunch of the usual bunch of characters (the funny guy, the teens, the old people, the married, the slacker and so on and so forth) and put them in a situation. If the situation is good enough, and you can plan stories that can give rise to some funny scenarios, you have a television series.

Weeds does the usual sitcom stuff, and the situation (premise) is like this. The Botwin family was doing good. Nice father, nice mother, two kids, and respectable neighborhood and all that. Then, Mr. Botwin dies and now it is up to the mother to take care of the family expenses. Most people would probably have some kind of retirement or financial planning in place. It is not revealed as to why, the Botwin family has become so desperate for money. Also, why Mr. Botwin never saved some is also not clear. It is also not clear why Mrs. Botwin wont cut down some expenses (she still wants to drive around her expensive car, expensive maid and have all the usual expensive stuff) and of course, find employment. What is clear is that, she is hell bent on maintaining her cushy lifestyle despite the changes in the economic scenario and she becomes a drug dealer.

That is where the narrative starts and usual stuff happens. The drug dealing business takes its toll on her because she is forced to it hide it from everybody. Of course, its like the cat closing its eyes when drinking milk. She is not earning a paycheck and the gossipy neighbors probably know that the family does not have anything in terms of savings. One by one, everybody figures out that she is, well, a drug dealer. In fact, I am surprised that she still thinks that nobody knows what she is doing. A one day 'following her around' will reveal what she does for a living.

Still though, she keeps persisting in her trade. Each episode finds her facing some new challenge, and she somehow overcomes them. Some of them are drug dealing related. Others are issues that all parents face, like her children getting into trouble. Her younger kid is trouble maker because that is the stereotyping. Her older is a teen, so its always about sex and drugs. Of course, there need's to be men in her life so we have the slacker brother in law, the obvious love interests and so on and so forth. The season does try to touch upon her missing her hubby, but it seems half baked. She also try to start a business front, but over all, it looks like almost everything is beyond her grasp but she persists anyway.

As the season reaches its conclusion, it does look like she is taking a level up in her business management skills. As a character, all I see is someone who is digging deeper and deeper into the black hole.

The show itself seems to be some kind of a social commentary (all sitcoms are) about how some folks cannot come to terms with changing situations. Clearly, the Botwin family could have done something else. The children could be more understanding for instance. The mother could figure something out as well. Instead, she is decidedly against working too hard for anything and embarking on a lifestyle that might just turn things bad, today or tomorrow. In the short term, she might be doing stuff to make things right for her children but in the long run, things might just blow up in her face.

Some of the characters are outright annoying, like the younger kid and the slacker brother in law. Other characters are okay, although the limited run time and limited episode count does not allow for much time to be spent on anyone other than the lead character. The show can be funny at times, but it is more drama. It's not a deep drama either. Perhaps, it is deep and I haven't been able dig below the surface. I doubt if I will re-watch the season again but I don't mind finding out what will happen to Mrs. Botwin in the season 2.

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Detective Byomkesh Bakshy - a wasted opportunity

The thing about detectives is that, they represent a odd profession with few rewards (Very rarely do we come across wealthy private investigators, although, these folks seem to play above such things as money) and obviously, very fictional representation of what actual investigators do. Yet, there is such an excitement when one notices that a detective of Indian origin is popular enough to warrant a proper adaptation with a decent cast and all that.

I am a huge fan of detective fiction. I have read all the stories of Sherlock Holmes, multiple times. All the works of Raymond Chandler and in general watch a lot of detective television show. Obviously, Bakshy is not going to match up to such high levels but there is always some fun to be had in everything. I gave the movie 10 minutes to see if some plot kicks in. Then, I gave it another 10 minutes, and then at the 30 minute mark, I just gave up. The movie gets only one thing right, and that would be the set design which mimics the time period it is set in. Otherwise, the whole thing is a dull affair.

Now, I dont know if the source material was already slow paced to start with. If so, perhaps the issue is not the adaptation. Yet, there are some liberties that need to be taken when a story is adapted and slow pacing is something that needs to be avoided. I have no complaints against the lead actor either, but, the character of bakshy itself is not well represented. Any movie that is introducing a character, especially a detective character has to do a sharp introduction.

Detectives need to be snarky, and be totally dickish to those around them. Perhaps they do it because think (and usually they are) they are smarter than most. Perhaps it comes with the territory because most people think that private investigators are folks with a camera that take dirty pictures. Then, there is the morality factor. Detectives bend rules, and they dont have a choice. They dont strictly follow the law but they dont break it outright either. They need to be sharp but also resourceful and have super cool friends. More importantly, this impression needs to be pre-established or established at the outset.

The movie seems to be building up to that, and then, nothing really happens. Our protaganist gets slapped in his supposedly character establishing moment. I just could not identify a detective character with that. Then, in the next 30 minutes, he lacks clarity and makes deductions which kids would do because many of us have something called common sense. So, no, the movie simply did not do anything to me. Heart breaking is the knowledge that the movie wont turn into a franchise. There is a lot of effort that has gone into making the movie. The music is there, the actors are there and the set design is just amazing!

Alas! some things are not meant to be.

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a game of solitaire OR klondike

One of the benefits of having a lot of free time is that it allows one to think and do stuff. Since I am officially suffering from farmers syndrome most of the time (especially these days), I need to come up with ways to pass time in a way that is useful to my mental faculties in the long run. One such 'way' I ran into or rather, rediscovered, is Klondike, more popularly known as Solitaire.

The game of Solitaire is known to most of us who grew up on windows computers. Microsoft has been packing Solitaire in one form or another in all their operating systems. Originally, they did this so people can get used to using the mouse (which was a big deal back then) but somehow, folks got used to playing Solitaire. I also played Solitaire, and I have begun to realize that the game is a lot more complicated than it appears. Then, it occurred to me that the game can actually be played in real life as well. So, I asked my dad to get me a pack of cards, and lo behold, I am now playing Solitaire, for reals with real playing cards.

Assembling a game of solitaire, is pretty straightforward. In short, here is how it works.

  1. shuffle the cards like a crazy person. I went days before I could actually shuffle and I seem to be getting good at it each day.
  2. Then, mark (in invisible areas in front of you) 12 rectangular places about the size of your card in front of you.
  3. On the top, mark 5 locations. One for the drawing stack, and the remaining for the stack that will start with the Aces card and go up from there.
  4. On the bottom, mark 7 locations.
  5. The cards will be laid out in the bottom 7 locations.
  6. First location, gets 1 card face up, and 0 card face down.
  7. Second location, gets 1 card face up, and 1 card face down.
  8. Third location, gets 1 card face up, and 2 cards face down.
  9. Fourth location, gets 1 card face up, and 3 cards face down.
  10. Fifth location, gets 1 card face up, and 4 cards face down.
  11. Sixth location, gets 1 card face up, and 5 cards face down.
  12. Seventh location, gets 1 card face up, and 6 cards face down.

The remaining cards go to the first location, from left, at the top. And then, using the standard rules of solitaire, you play.

For me, the game of solitaire has this unique feature, where in, you cannot always win. That means, for every 100 games you play, there is a good chance that you will lose. At the same time, there is a good chance that you will win as well. More importantly, when you lose, its impossible to say, did you lose because the game was unwinnable from the beginning or you made a wrong move, and hence turned a winnable game into a losing one?

That means, each time you draw, you are constantly wondering...are you making the wrong move? are you making the right move? Unlike in the PC, you dont have an UNDO button, at least not an unlimited UNDO button. Which means, each card that is moved becomes something of a puzzle.

On top of this, there is the fact that, in some cases, the game is unwinnable from the get go. Which means, no matter how thoughtful the moves are, eventually, you are destined to lose.

On so many levels, the simple game of solitaire questions what you do? Sometimes you lose not because you are bad. You lose because you are meant to lose and no amount of effort from your side can change that.

Just like real life, eh?

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Dangal - standard tropes play their tune

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is how much less time aamir khan spends on the screen. Thanks to his larger screen presence, the spotlight will  be on him. i am thinking of movies such as Lagaan, that movie about Mangal Pandey, Ghajini. Of course, Dhoom 3 which was more about Aamir Khan than anything else. He sells tickets, so it makes sense that he is on the screen a lot, and he gets the best scenes, and best song locations, the best heroine...Hence, the reduced on screen presence in the movie is a good sign. That alone makes this movie better than almost any sports movie.

It is difficult not to think of Dhangal and not think of other sports movies, especially, Chak De India. In fact, they both deal with literally the exact same plot. A sport that is not appreciated. Women/Girls. A lead actor who has been de-glamorized. Patriotism. The ability to win despite limited facilities, encouragement, money and all that. I kept getting a sense of dejavu about this movie, if only because another movie doing almost the exact same thing had come decades prior.

For me, the ultimate sports movie would be the first Rocky Movie. it is not fair, but it is not possible for me not to compare the two sports movies - Chak De India and Dangal - and Rocky. They are both about winning against all odds. However, the circumstances are different. The odds that are stacked against them are different. For instance, when Rocky decides to fight, nobody tries to discourage him or make fun of him. if he is training, he gets to train in peace. It's his business and nobody else's. He does not have to worry about getting proper food, although he is as poor as it can get. He has no difficulty managing his love life along with his boxing goals because, it is something he can pursue without worrying about it. In the above two sports movies, what the girls are up to suddenly becomes everybody's business. Further, perhaps the biggest challenge for them is getting proper food to support their rigorous regime. Further, at the end, the movie says that the two sport stars have won more than a dozen medals. However, no mention is made if the economic fortunes of the family have improved. Where as in Rocky, he is doing alright. He is making big bucks and living a much better life.

Perhaps, that is the real commentary of these movies. Perhaps it is all about the economy. Perhaps it is about access to essentials and what is a priority. For a sports person in the developed nation, she/he is motivated because she/he, for reasons of his own, gets up does stuff. For a sports person in a developing nation, the motivation is perhaps derived because something is not allowed to happen but one has to rebel to get it.

The dark spot (and it is a larger share of the big circle) is that a lot of folks choose to fold when the going gets tough. The bright spot, at least some people dont fold. For that, I am thankful. Movies such as these are but commercialization of a social issue, but hey, if not for the movie, I would not have heard of this wrestling family. For that I am thankful.

Like they say in Lord of the Rings, there is always hope.

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explaining to mom what I do for a living

'Process and data modelling' image from wikimedia. link
Everybody has to do something for living. I of course, also do a lot of stuff for a living, and you can find more details here. Unlike other industries, the software industry is very...young! People have been building houses for centuries (civil engineering). Machines have been built in one form or other, again, for centuries. Same goes to chemistry and even medicine. Perhaps the most recent and relatively young industry would be automobile development, which is perhaps a couple of centuries old.

This creates a lot of problems, especially folks like me who not only write code but also design systems, propose solutions and keep on the edge of new stuff. When non-IT folk ask me what I do for a living, I can simply say 'software developer' (which is not entirely true because I do a lot more that just develop software) and get away with it. However, when old friends and mom asks that question, I cannot just say the same and get away with it. Such an incident happened recently, and suddenly, I was back in a class room and I was explaining software development using stuff that she would understand. Yes, I used cooking as an example. Come to think of it, cooking and coding are not that different. You are taking stuff that is in raw form, and giving it a shape that makes it easy for folks to consume.

After an hour, when i was done explaining, she seemed to get the gist of it. Perhaps, if I was only a 'basic developer' the explanation would have been simpler. I am anything but that, and that made way for complicated explanations. When it is not my mom, but my friends (who have education level similar to mine) things are easier but no less complicated because none of them are in IT. My small collection of friends (which keeps getting smaller every year) are business degree holders and although their paycheck comes from IT, they themselves dont know much about software development. Still though, they try.

Interestingly enough, I still remember like it was yesterday that my mom, despite her limited education is the one who taught me the 26 alphabets. She is the one who paid for my first computer, and she is (at that time) the only one who was happy I chose computer science (everybody else wanted me to take electronics). She was also the one who gave me the seed money (along with one major benefactor) when I decided to go all entrepreneur on my career. Heck, on many many occasions, she was the only one who stood by me, when everybody else was convinced that I am smart guy who always takes poor decisions.

Overall, yeah, thanks mom!

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Async and Await Revisited - Update 1

I have already written about async, here. yet, thought I will just revisit here.

The thing is about async and await is all about improving responsiveness. What is responsiveness though? In different context, it takes on different meanings. In a website, the ability to move content around to suit the screen size is responsiveness. You see this a lot in mobile websites which also look equally good on desktop. In a application though, responsiveness comes down to the ability to keep the user engaged when stuff is happening in the background.

A simple everyday application activity is waiting for a photo to load. There would be a photo area, which will be surrounded by the usual application buttons and options. While the photo loads, the rest of the application should still be usable. Perhaps a loading screen with a percentage to show what is happening. Stuff like this is what async and await is all about. It is about making sure that the thread that manages the user interface is able to isolate itself from other stuff such as data queries and processing of data which is happening in the background.

This is the whole point of writing asynchronous code. keeping things from freezing or becoming unresponsive when stuff takes longer than expected.

To this effect, c sharp provides the async and await keywords. These keywords allow a particular method to be marked for the benefit of the compiler, indicating that stuff that follows will be asynchronous. Then, the compiler can go ahead create the necessary task related code. This is the key stuff about async and await. It takes the load off the developer from having to write actual asynchronous code, reducing errors in the process. This also means, all that stuff you know from reading about tasks and threads will come in handy here as well.

As always, find the code sample for this entry at my repo.

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