Secret Iraq War Logs reveal Civilian Casualties, Ignored Abuse

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

A 2007 photograph shows a North Carolina memorial for U.S. casualties in the Iraq War. Since then, the American death toll has risen from 3883 to 4426, and classified death counts revealed by WikiLeaks put the total documented deaths from 2004 to 2009, including civilians, at 109,032.

Photo © Nils Fretwurst. Obtained under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License via Wikipedia.

Nearly 400,000 classified U.S. military documents made public today by WikiLeaks show that the United States lied about civilian death counts and made a policy of not investigating torture allegations during the Iraq War.

Major global newspapers including the New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde had early access to the classified material. The British Bureau for Investigative Journalism has also created a detailed website about the Iraq War Logs.

Although the Pentagon previously denied that it kept records of civilian deaths, the classified war logs document the deaths of 66,081 Iraqi civilians from 2004 to 2009, out of a total 109,032. These numbers fit estimates by the Iraq Body Count project, which the New York Times reminds us is an organization that the “Bush administration repeatedly derided as unreliable and producing inflated numbers.” The Times also notes that as late as this summer, the Pentagon reported an official death count far lower than the numbers now revealed in the classified war logs.

The leaked documents also reveal that the U.S. made a policy of ignoring incidents of prisoner abuse and torture committed by Iraqi security forces. American Troops were required to report such abuse to their superiors, but military officials were not required to investigate reports of torture unless Americans had actually taken part. This led the U.S. to cover its eyes to over 1000 reports of abuse by the very Iraqi security forces that the U.S. has been backing up and training to take control of the country.

Incidents that the United States ignored included reports of “men and women blindfolded, beaten with cables, their genitals electrocuted, fingernails ripped out, sodomised with bottles and hoses” ( and “prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks” as well as “rape and even murder” (The Guardian). Despite knowledge of this widespread torture, the United States transfered at least 9,250 detainees to Iraqi supervision as late as 2010, despite a written 2008 campaign pledge that “Barack Obama will end the use torture without exception” ( The lack of real change from the Obama Administration is not surprising given Obama’s choice to maintain Bush appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.

When Britain’s Bureau for Investigative Journalism sent a letter to the Pentagon asking for comment on the allegation that “the US Government handed over detainees to Iraqi authorities, knowing of concerns that torture was rife in Iraqi detention facilities,” the Pentagon replied only to say:

“We strongly condemn the unauthorised disclosure of classified information and will not comment on these leaked documents other than to note that ‘significant activities’ reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well-chronicled in news stories, books and films and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past.” (

As an American citizen, I abhor that my country has tacitly allowed these sickening human rights violations to take place by under-reporting casualties and failing to investigate clear reports of torture and abuse. I cannot and will not give my support to any politician or official who enables this disgusting degradation of human life to continue.

A Fall Adventure in the Wisconsin Woods…

· Posted by Joshua in Nature

Because I thought, hey, why not post more leaf photos?

Vine-wrapped tree limbs sprawl out in every direction, with leaves ranging from green and yellow to orange and deep red.
I. Lost in the Leaves: Arts and Crafts Wallpaper has nothing on this.

An Oak Tree branches out high overhead, bearing a mosaic of leaves in yellow, orange, and green.
III. Oaks in the Sky: Could I climb one to meet Jack and go looking for giant’s gold?

Bright yellow leaves make a ceiling over the autumn woods.
II. A Golden Canopy: It’s like discovering El Dorado.

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Media Management: The Pentagon & WikiLeaks

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, Media

Recent publicity suggests that the Pentagon is in the midst of a P.R. campaign to shape media coverage in advance of an imminently expected release of secret Iraq War documents from the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

Founded in 2006, Wikileaks became a household name in April 2010 when it released classified video footage of U.S. troops firing unprovoked at Reuters journalists and even children from an Apache helicopter in Iraq. In July, WikiLeaks followed by publishing the Afghan War Diary, a cache of tens of thousands of reports on military incidents during the War in Afghanistan.

U.S. Military representatives criticized WikiLeaks over these releases, declaring them a security risk and even suggesting that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” WikiLeaks and its supporters have countered that the Pentagon certainly has blood on its hands, and that the documents may even help save lives by prompting public discussion about bringing an end to America’s ongoing wars.

Now WikiLeaks is preparing to release a new and even larger set of documents pertaining to the Iraq War. The leak is widely expected this week and may come as early as today. Interestingly, the Pentagon appears to have engaged in a preemptive public relations campaign over the weekend to try and shape press coverage in advance of the release. If so, it’s a fascinating example example of government media management.

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Four Pictures of October

· Posted by Joshua in Nature

Trees burst with fire-orange leaves into the cool blue sky.

Autumn is the most vivid season. That’s clear enough from the colors, but the visuals are just a veneer on what we actually feel. Autumn is the crisp bite in the air each October dawn. It’s the smell of apple pie in the oven, the taste of sweet squash, the loud crunch of leaves crumbling underfoot. You can’t experience October in Wisconsin with a photograph. You have to go out and live it. Who knows what you’ll find…

A Tuft of Deep Red Leaves against the Blue Sky Bones washed up among the leaves beside a small stream. Leaves of every color at the edge of a Wisconsin forest.

Remembering James Gates Percival

· Posted by Joshua in Arts, History

Engraving of James Gates Percival

Engraving of James Gates Percival as a young man.

Buried deep in southwest Wisconsin, beneath a granite monument at the hamlet of Hazel Green, lies the body of a great nineteenth century student. His works in language, literature, and science have shaped our culture to the present day, yet these contributions are nearly as forgotten now as the name of their maker: James Gates Percival. As a poet, Percival was put to music by Edward Elgar. As a linguist, he was a leading contributor to the original Webster’s Dictionary. As a geologist, he compiled the first surveys of two U.S. states: Connecticut and Wisconsin. These accomplishments are now lost among the tomes of dusty archives, for in Percival’s own words:

What’s earth, what’s life, to space, eternity?
‘Tis but a flash, a glance—from birth to death;
And he, who ruled the world, would only be
Lord of a point—a creature of a breath;

And what is it to gain a hero’s name,
or build one’s greatness on the rabble’s roar?
‘Tis but to light a feeble, flickering flame,
That shines a moment, and is seen no more.

James Gates Percival was born in Berlin, Connecticut, on September 15, 1795. He entered Yale College at age 16, already captive to the pursuit of poetry. Percival’s early life, however, was seldom easy. His father had died before James reached his teen years, and at Yale, Percival was so derided by his peers for his poetic ambitions that he left the college in 1812 and employed himself as a farmer for a year before gathering the resolve to finish school.

Returning to Yale, Percival engrossed himself in his studies and avoided society. One classmate noted that “I never knew one who could acquire correct knowledge quicker than Percival,” and another observed, “I think he had few acquaintances in college, though I never knew that he had any enemies. The fact that his intercourse was so circumscribed was doubtless to be attributed to constitutional reserve, and not to the consciousness of his own superiority. Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow.”

After graduating in 1815, Percival continued to expand his knowledge. He embarked as a private tutor; then sought and obtained a degree in medicine at Yale. The young doctor, however, found himself unable to cope with the emotion of his work. Percival felt a strong sense of empathy for his patients and an extremely self-conscious sense of responsibility to them. He could overwhelm himself with grief when he lacked a cure for someone in pain.

Percival also thirsted, quietly, for companionship. Those who knew him remarked on his sensitive and amicable nature, but they could rarely penetrate his reserved demeanor. Friendships for Percival were often fruitless, and his one cautious letter of love was met with steadfast rejection. As grief stacked on grief, Percival penned a long, rambling, maudlin poem entitled “The Suicide.” The work is frenzied and inconsistent, at times unreadable, at times presaging the later vivid imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. A few stanzas follow:

How easy, O! how trifling, with the steel
To pierce a heart that loves no scene below,
To wound a breast too callous e’er to feel
A pang less cruel than a demon’s woe.

Does not the smiling surface of the wave
Kindly invite to take my endless sleep?
How sweet to rest within a watery grave;
How soft those slumbers—that repose how deep.

The death-winged ball—can pierce my phrenzied brain,
The knife—can loose the shackles of my soul,
An opiate—that can ease my every pain,
Smiles, how inviting!—in the poisoned bowl.

And thou, sweet drug!—can’st shed the balmy dew
Of sleep eternal, o’er my wearied eyes,
And give repose, as calm to mortal view
As when the infant wrapt in slumber lies.

Still thou art slow though sure—ah! can I wait
A single moment, ere I sink in death;
Perhaps I may lament it when too late,
And struggle to regain my fleeting breath.

Give me the knife, the dagger, or the ball—
O! I can take them with a smile serene;
Then like a flash of lighting I may fall
And rush at once into the world unseen.

Percival made a number of chaotic attempts to take his life in 1820. He bashed his head with stones; he overdosed on opium; he invested in a brace of pistols. In time Percival recovered from these incidents, but he never overcame their scars. He briefly resumed practicing medicine far from home in South Carolina after 1820, but the doctor remarked in one conversation, “I had got my name up for writing verses, and found myself ruined. When a person is really ill he will not send for a poet to cure him.”

More a poet than a doctor, Percival withdrew from society, and he spent most of his life in seclusion. He never married. The pathos that marked his early years forever overshadowed his later achievements.

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Copyright and Copyleft

· Posted by Joshua in Internet, Media

The Copyright Symbol (The letter C enclosed in a full circle).

The Copyright Symbol

We live in an Information Age. The laws that govern how people use, share, and interact with information are more deeply entwined with daily life now than ever before. As citizens of this era, we have a duty to understand these laws, their applicability, and their problems — and we can profit by our knowledge. Whether we like it or not, copyright law is as fundamental to life in the Information Age as the right to free speech. Like free speech, copyrights in America have a basis in the U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress used its power to enact Title 17 of the United States Code, which deals with copyright law. Unlike the right to free speech, however, copyright law is far from commonly understood.

At its simplest, a copyright is the right to copy, modify, and/or distribute a piece of information. That information could be a painting, a film, a software program, a textbook, an email, or any number of other things. As the U.S. Constitution stipulates, it is also an “exclusive right.” Copyright law in the United States essentially states that the only person who has the right to copy, modify, and/or distribute an original work is the person who created that work. Anyone else who wishes to copy, modify, or distribute a copyrighted work must get permission from the copyright holder, or they can face legal repercussions. Copyright holders can demand special conditions or royalty payments in exchange for sharing their rights with others. This much, I hope, is common knowledge.

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts...

Excerpt from the U.S. Constitution laying the basis for copyrights.

The purpose for copyrights, as the Constitution puts it, is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Giving authors the sole right to copy and distribute their creations gives them an incentive to create, for if anybody could copy works freely from the moment they were created, it would be very difficult for creators to earn any credit or rewards for their effort — and therefore, little reason to undertake the effort at all. Copyrights ensure that people have a reason to exercise their freedom of speech and push forward public knowledge and culture.

At the same time, excessive copyright exclusivity can hamper progress. Restrictions on copying, changing, or distributing original works could bring the flow of information to a standstill, or limit the spread of information to elite circles. Those things would hardly be good for a democracy. As a result, the U.S. Constitution stipulated that the exclusive rights that Congress could grant to authors were “limited.” They are limited in time, but they are also limited in terms of what kind of information can be copyrighted and by the “fair use” doctrine, which allows exceptions to copyright exclusivity in order to promote the fair flow of information. The result is that copyright law is far from straightforward — it is a balance between rights for creators and the rights of the public. Title 17 is today over 300 pages long. Here are some of the most crucial points of Copyright Law in the United States today: Continue reading →

Oil in Them Thare Hills?

· Posted by Joshua in History

Early Autumn colors on the undulating hills of Southwest Wisconsin.
Is there black gold hidden in the hills of Southwest Wisconsin?

This ain’t no lie: a long time back, before it was “America’s Dairyland,” Wisconsin was oil country — sort of. In 1865 and 1866, sixty-six “petroleum mining” companies were chartered in Wisconsin. This oil boom had its roots in the 1850s. That decade, a number of chemists perfected the process of distilling kerosene from crude oil, creating a combustible product far cheaper and more convenient than candles to light up shops and homes. In 1859, the first oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania. The fledgling industry was soon interrupted by the advent of American Civil War, but as the war drew down in 1864, a boom took place across Pennsylvania and the adjacent states as speculators looked to make a fortune in crude. Within a year, oil frenzy would spread all across the North.

Wisconsin, with its Appalachian-like hills in the southwest and its marshes and bogs across the middle, seemed to many untrained speculators like the ideal place to strike black gold. Appleton, a young city of 2,655 people near the marshy junction of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago, saw the creation of seven petroleum companies in 1865. The Appleton Crescent for April 5 that year noted that “Strangers keep flocking to town. There is a constant stream of visitors to the Northwestern Company’s well. House room is becoming so scarce that the newcomers will soon be obliged to bring their tents with them, or sleep standing.” Locals looked forward excitedly to the day when their region would become as busy and prosperous as the oil fields of Pennsylvania.

A hill covered in old wooden oil wells.
For a time, Wisconsin’s hills looked set to become like this 1860s Pennsylvania oil field.

The western side of the state joined in the speculation by 1866. Sparta, a Monroe County village with 1,897 inhabitants, held the offices of upwards of ten petroleum companies with operations in the nearby Kickapoo River Valley. “Oil City, Wisconsin” (Google Map) sprung up around the site of a promising claim near Sparta. Two counties to the south, the larger city of Prairie du Chien (population 3,556 in 1865) witnessed the creation of four petroleum corporations in 1866, including the ambitiously named “American Petroleum and Mining Company.” Influential Prairie du Chien residents including steamboat legend Joseph Reynolds, railroad superintendent John Lawler, and ex-fur trader B.W. Brisbois all jumped on the oil bandwagon with sizable investments. Still other oil companies were founded in nearby small towns like Bell Center. But was there any oil?

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Southwest Wisconsin: Cheese Paradise

· Posted by Joshua in Miscellany

A Wedge of Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese
Pleasant Ridge Reserve, made near Dodgeville, Wisconsin, took best of show at the ACS Awards for the third time.

Forget last night’s Emmys — the results of the 2010 American Cheese Society Awards are here. The annual competition at the ACS “Festival of Cheese” is among the highlights of the nation’s culinary calendar. This year’s contest took place on August 28 in Seattle, Washington. The society released the complete judging results from the competition online today, and they are a great reminder of why life in Wisconsin is so appetizing. Wisconsin cheesemakers took home almost one third of the awards given at the contest, including 29 firsts, 36 seconds, 33 thirds, and the prestigious best of show prize for Upland Cheese Company’s extra-aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

I’m not an expert cheese taster, but I did grow up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm where cheese was always a treat. More than half a century ago, my grandfather helped manage a cheese factory just a mile up the road from my family’s farm, and although the place stopped making cheese before I was born, I can still see the little old factory building across the valley from my bedroom window. Today the farm where I live no longer even produces milk, but I’ve kept my childhood eagerness to always sample all the cheese on the tray, and growing up I’ve learned how to appreciate skillful affinage.

Given my background, I’m often surprised at how few of my fellow young Wisconsinites realize the diversity and renown of the cheeses made in our midst. We’ve been raised in a generation of big box stores and chain restaurants, and they’ve spread an illusion that every city and every state is the same, except that some places have more people and more chain stores than others. These chains breed ignorance of the homegrown products that make every town materially different from the next. People know that Wisconsin is “America’s Dairyland” — it’s printed on the license plates — but the cheeses in Wisconsin’s big supermarkets arrive from mass-producers across the Midwest, and the award-winning cheeses made right in the neighborhood go to high-end restaurants and specialty stores in California and New York. Luckily, our farmer’s markets, locally owned shops, and the cheese companies themselves all continue to sell the fruit of the state. For the unfamiliar, here’s a quick tour of just a few of the remarkable cheese producers in Southwest Wisconsin

Best of Show at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition went to Uplands Cheese Company, located just north of Dodgeville. It makes a highly-decorated cheese called “Pleasant Ridge Reserve,” which has now won the top award at the ACS contest an unprecedented three times (2001, 2005, 2010). Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese in the style of French Beaufort, created by Mike Gingrich and now crafted by Andy Hatch. The cheese is made in small quantities on the same farm that supplies all its milk. I have not yet had the opportunity to sample the extra-aged variety of Pleasant Ridge Reserve that took a ribbon this year, but I have tried the younger version in the past. It has a nutty flavor that is complex but amiable — pleasant, like the name suggests.

A Few Award-Winning Cheesemakers in Southwest Wisconsin.

Hidden Springs Creamery, outside Westby, was another big winner this year. Hidden Springs, run by Brenda Jensen, specializes in sheep’s milk cheeses and has built an international reputation. British humorist Stephen Fry visited the creamery in 2008 as the basis for the Wisconsin segment of his “Stephen Fry in America” documentary series on BBC One. This year the creamery’s “Driftless” variety swept the flavored fresh sheep’s milk category at the ACS contest this year, with a first for the Lavender Honey flavor, a second for Cranberry Cinnamon, and a third for Maple. There is nothing better on warm bread or bagels in the morning than Driftless Cheese. The creamery’s aged Ocooch Mountain Reserve also tied for second in its category this year.

There are several other local cheesemakers whose work I can personally endorse:

A half wheel of cave-aged goat's milk cheese.
Sterling Reserve is an aged raw milk goat’s milk cheese made at Mount Sterling, Wisconsin.

Finally, I’ve saved the last spot in this post for the Mount Sterling Co-op Creamery, the only active cheese producer in my home county, which specializes in goat’s milk cheeses. The Mount Sterling Co-op earned a ribbon for its tasty raw milk cheddar at the ACS contest this year. The creamery’s best product, in my opinion, is the cave-aged Sterling Reserve, a washed rind cheese with a hard texture and varied flavor streaked with mouthwatering tanginess. Sterling Reserve won first place in its class last year at the Los Angeles International Dairy Competition, and it took second in its category early this spring at the World Championship Cheese contest in Madison, Wisconsin.

I could write more, and there are many local cheeses with rave reviews that I have yet to sample. Why waste time just reading about cheese here, though, when you could be out tasting new varieties for yourself? Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with Mild Cheddar and Co-Jack, but living in Wisconsin without sampling our more unique artisanal cheeses would be like living in Champagne and only drinking Kool-Aid. This is Cheese Paradise! Enjoying it is as easy as eating.

High Speed Rail: A Wisconsin Tradition

· Posted by Joshua in History

The Twin Cities Zephyr stopped at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
The Twin Cities Zephyr at the depot in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, c. 1940s. From the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society. WHi-24523. Photo by Art Hellberg.

With federal funding ready for a new high speed railway across Wisconsin, the next decade may see trains whizz between Madison and Milwaukee at top speeds of 110 mph. The rail plans are a matter of some debate today, but high speed trains were once taken for granted in Wisconsin. The new railroad, in fact, won’t even be that fast compared to the current leaders. State-of-the-art electric trains in China and France maintain average speeds from station to station as high as 175 to 190 mph, and can reach peak speeds over 200 mph. Wisconsin was not always so far behind.

From the 1930s to the 1950s — the golden age of the “streamliner” — railroad tracks in Wisconsin carried some of the world’s fastest regularly scheduled trains. Two companies, the Milwaukee Road (officially the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad) and the Burlington Route (officially the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad), competed to race passengers between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

The Milwaukee Road was the first to reach record speeds. Its “Twin Cities Hiawatha” started north from Chicago through Milwaukee to Wisconsin Dells, La Crosse, Winona, and at last Minneapolis-St. Paul. Introduced in 1935, the Hiawatha was a lightweight train powered by some of the fastest steam engines ever built. The Milwaukee Road class A locomotive could reach top speeds over 110 mph, and its 1939 successor, the class F7, could go as fast as 125 mph. This allowed the Milwaukee Road to maintain a regular station-to-station schedule of 58 minutes from Portage to Sparta, Wisconsin, a 78.3 mile stretch. That required a sustained average speed of 81 mph, meaning that the Hiawatha ran the fastest station-to-station rail trip anywhere on earth at the time. No steam engine ever surpassed the Hiawatha’s station-to-station records.1

The Burlington Route could exceed the Milwaukee Road’s record only with more advanced technology: combination diesel-electric locomotives cased in stainless steel. Burlington’s “Twin Cities Zephyr” sped west from Chicago across Illinois and turned north to follow the Mississippi River after East Dubuque, passing through Prairie du Chien, La Crosse, and Pepin before arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul. Like the Hiawatha, the Zephyr entered service in 1935. In the 1940s and 1950s, refinements in the route allowed it to overtake the Hiawatha’s regular station-to-station record along the smooth, level tracks in the Mississippi River Valley. The Zephyr required an average speed of 84.4 mph to keep its schedule between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The stretch from East Dubuque to Prairie du Chien was nearly as fast, averaging 84.0 mph. The Zephyr’s station-to-station average speeds through Western Wisconsin were the fastest in the world until 1957.2

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Steve Jobs: “not a sweatshop”

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines

Apple iPhone 3GS
Apple iPhone 3GS.
Photo © 2009 Renato Mitra, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License 2.0.

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs spoke in California today and briefly defended working conditions at the Chinese factories that manufacture Apple’s high end consumer electronics. Here, though, are the numbers:

The U.S. retail price of Apple’s iPhone 3GS, 16GB:
The starting monthly salary of the workers who build the iPhone and iPad for Apple at a Foxconn manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China:
$131.77 (¥900)2
That salary expressed as an hourly wage for Foxconn employees who work six twelve-hour shifts a week:
$0.46 (¥3.13)3
Number of suicides and suicide attempts at Foxconn factories so far this year:
Amount by which Foxconn has now pledged to increase wages for assembly line workers:
30%5 (at the base rate, that is ¥270 or $39.53/month)
Price of stock in Apple Inc. on NASDAQ at the close of trading on June 2, 2010:
Amount by which the stock price in Apple Inc. has risen so far this year:
Date when Apple surpassed Microsoft as the world’s largest technology company by market capitalization:
May 27, 20108

Apple is not the only client of the Taiwan based Foxconn Technology Group. Devices sold by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia and others are also built at the very same Foxconn plants. It is Apple, however, that makes the greatest pretense at exclusivity — exacting the highest prices from American consumers, dispersing the wealth to Wall Street traders, and remaining content with the abysmal wages at its Chinese assembly lines. It is just one more reminder of who bears the burden for our cozy material lifestyle.

UPDATE (June 7, 2010): Under increased pressure, Foxconn has announced a 70% wage increase for its production line workers, on top of the aforementioned 30% increase — if workers can pass a three month performance review. Investors seem to dislike the idea of boosting employee wages, and shares in Foxconn’s parent company have fallen swiftly at the news. Read more: BBC News.

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