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September 20, 2012

The internet has a distinct lack of accountability.  People say remarkably stupid or cruel things and then disappear never to confront their victim again.  Having been riding this contraption for 20 years now (almost exactly) I have said some smart things, been slammed for them, and never had the chance to say “I told you so”.  I suppose the thing to say is :  On the internet, there is no “I told you so”.

Well, I like to say “I told you so” once in a while because I tend to think of communication with other people as … communication with other people.

So, in February of 2010 when the iPad was released, I wrote a piece right here about how this thing was going to take off and that one should be buying Apple stock right there and then.  Thing I was right about #1:  Apple stock that day was worth approximately $200/share, and today is worth close to $700/share.  I was right … very right. A lot of people told me I was wrong that day and that the iPad was a silly device that wasn’t a tablet, or a computer, or a laptop.  Somehow, this proved (to them) that there was no place for this device, and the world would just make fun of it. Oddly, these people apparently had never witnessed the birth of a new category even though they had already witnessed the advent of the the personal computer (also mocked), the laptop, the cell phone, the gaming console … etc.  I’m glad that I waited until now to say “I told you so” because the numbers at this point are truly staggering … Apple has sold 84 million iPads, and that is beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Love it or hate it, buying Apple stock would have been a very good idea in 2010, and it would seem that people have found a category for those 84 million iPads.  In fact, it eventually became so obvious that this category existed that other companies copied the device and are selling millions as well. I’m watching for the next big thing and think more often that Apple may now be too big (and without Steve Jobs) to continue to be the leader in creating categories (remember the smart phone and iPod?). I’d like to see an upstart come out of nowhere.

Memory on the internet is pretty much non-existent, and I don’t really recall ever having heard someone admit that they were wrong on an internet forum.  This one of the times, though, when I’m going to say “I told you so” … even if nobody is listening.

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Time to blog again …

November 21, 2011

Just found this draft from 6 months ago … liked it, so I post it now.

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I haven’t posted here in a very long time, but every once in a while I need to put some points … somewhere … and I come back here.  There seems to be a lot to communicate lately, so here I am.

I just finished reading some stuff from Jane Burke of Proquest on the idea of discovery.  I must say, first of all, that I am instantly suspicious of “think pieces” written by corporate VPs with an interest in selling the very thing that they are writing about.  I won’t even suggest that I’m being too quickly dismissive, because I think that suspicion is completely warranted … it is, after all, no different than reading about the dangers of cigarette smoking in an article written by a tobacco company executive.  Harsh, but true.

It has become all the rage for companies to tell us in libraries that they have been studying the user experience, and in a sense, they have.  They have been doing qualitative research on user searching habits, and have been collecting some reasonable data.  Unfortunately, they also make a fundamental and critical mistake when it comes to dealing with their data.  The one message that has been coming out the loudest from these company is that students are comfortable with searching Google, and like a simple search interface.  Thus, they are offering a Google-like interface on their new products (at least when I’ve seen them demonstrated, this is what I’m being told).  This is good … sort of.  There is a quote by Henry Ford that is appropriate in this, and so many other situations:

“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “a faster horse”.”

When you ask students what they like to use for searching (or anyone, for that matter), they do say “Google” … so do I.  To me, that’s because Google is the best search engine.  Now, if you were to respond to that by offering me an interface that looked like Google, I would not necessarily be delighted.  A single search box, and a clean looking page does not a search engine make.  In fact, I don’t care in the slightest what the page looks like, if I get the results that help me to get my work done. This is the problem with basing design decisions on what people say that they like. There are, quite simply, more questions to be asked before you really know anything.  You need to find out not only where they go to find their information, but what it is about that tool that satisfies them. It seems that when one says “Google” is their preference, the common response is to assume that it’s the way that Google looks, or the fact that is has a single search box that is important. If you dig even a tiny bit deeper, however, it should be quite obvious that people don’t go to Google because they like the interface, but rather because they like what they find when the results appear.  Simple really.  When I do a search on Google Scholar at the reference desk, I assure you that the student doesn’t run off to continue on their own because of the clean page and the single search box that they can’t wait to try …  they run off to do the work themselves because I just showed them a list of material that solves their current information need, that they spent hours trying to find on other tools. I continually think of an old saying when I hear vendor presentations describing to me all of the wonders of their new “discovery” product:

“It’s not the searching, it’s the finding (stupid)”

And this is why just asking people what they like is a huge mistake.  Henry Ford could have gotten into the business of developing a faster horse if he had simply asked people what they wanted, and this is precisely how many companies behave when it comes to product development.  Of course, Ford wasn’t just satisfied with that answer, but instead asked what it was people were doing with the horses and if there might be a better way to accomplish that same goal with a different product.  Since people were either travelling or hauling something with the horse, the real solution was not to create a faster horse, but something that traveled faster and was more comfortable, or that hauled more and did it more easily. This seems like a trivial example at this point in history, but the world is mostly full of companies trying to make faster horses, while very few respond by popularizing the automobile.

It was at a vendor presentation that this old saying most recently came to mind.  We were shown a product that searched a huge number of documents and libraries and came back with hundreds of thousands of hits.  The search allowed for faceting and all kinds of searching bells and whistles, and librarians eagerly asked questions about metadata and advanced search techniques, etc (as they tend to do).  I had only one question, however:

“In this list of a bazillion things, how is relevancy calculated”

The reason that question is the only one I care about is simple … You can offer all of the search options in the world, and search every document known to man, but if you don’t bring the best, most relevant articles to the top of the list, I’m going back to Google.  That’s because a million hits from a comprehensive collection is nothing but a really huge list … the searching (the using of all of the options) is not why I am here … I’m here to find. One great hit is infinitely more valuable in research than a million semi-relevant documents.

The part that really killed me came with the answer to my question.  The presenter said “that’s a technical question that I don’t know the answer to, and it’s a company secret.”  That’s also the moment at which I was ready to walk out.

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The gap.

May 3, 2010

One of the most striking things to happen to me in my dealings with university students over the course of the 09-10 year was also one of the most mundane. I had become interested in the user experience for a number of reasons.  One is that my job officially became exactly that (User Experience Librarian). Secondly, I began spending a fair amount of time on the Reference Desk specifically so that I could experience our users more, and really a librarian’s job is somehow always focused on the experience of our users.

One little event summed up a great deal for me this winter.   It is very common these days for students to approach the Reference Desk holding some type of portable device and say “I found this item … how do I get it?”  Sounds mundane … not even interesting, really.  As I thought more about it, however, I realized that this was actually very interesting. This is not about the wonders of mobile devices or the wonders of searching.  Nor is this about how students are doing research “wrong”.   What’s going on here is the very important identification of a very serious gap. What would seem to be happening is that students are navigating their own virtual environment and finding the information that they need … just like I do, actually.  They are quite capable of searching (and more importantly, finding) by navigating their familiar tools (often Google Scholar), or utilizing their own social networks (a very legitimate way of conducting research). They search, they accumulate citations, and then suddenly they hit a wall. Their virtual world gets them very close to the information they want, but leaves them one step away.  The stuff that they need is in another world called the library.

One would think that this would not be much of a problem.  Academia is about sharing ideas and “standing on the shoulders of giants”, in the words of Newton. But these students are staring across an abyss. Every time they click on a citation for an article, they are told that they can not access it and, apparently, the library has this thing but there doesn’t seem to be a link from their world to the library world.  Well, at least they suspect that there is a link, but when they enter into the library world none of the conventions of their previous world hold, and none of the things they know from all of their searching to this point makes any sense. It would seem that the keyholders to the library world are at the Reference Desk (what we call, rightly, the Research Help Desk).   Those people can tell you how that citation in your hand that is so tantalizingly close to being an actual article can be turned into a real, honest to goodness, document.

In a rather frightful introduction to this system, the person at this desk suggests that “you’d better sit down for this”.  Now, this is a pretty weird introduction to the next step in your research process, since all of the previous steps have been done with the click of a mouse, or a call to your friend. In the world that you are entering materials are divided into the stuff that you find in the library catalog, and the stuff that you find in “journal indexes”.  Needless to say, this initial division of materials is nothing like what you’ve done so far.  The stuff in the journal indexes are broken down into even more (seemingly endless) divisions, based entirely on (get this): “who owns the thing”.  Every owner has provided their own interface to the material and none of them are all that great.  As a person who probably never even realized that journals were “owned”, this will be very unfamiliar territory. All of the owners put walls around what they own, and will never (NEVER) link to the other things that other people own.  Once again, this is nothing at all like what you have encountered to this point in your search.

The library catalog, while relatively familiar looking, is also pretty bizarre.  While to this point all of your searching has been done by keywords, and relevancy has been magically determined by an algorithm behind the scenes that can gauge the importance of an item by its relation to other items, this tool is different.  Keyword searching exists, but the only links between materials are based on “subject headings” … these subject heading things follow an arcane system that you have never seen, is used nowhere else, and utilizes language that is entirely foreign (and don’t even try to guess).

With your citation in hand, the person behind the desk will now spend the next ten or fifteen minutes explaining how to make the jump from the system you have used, to the system that the library uses.

Now, our users are way smarter than we think (we like to consider them naive for not understanding our system).  Ah, but they understand it very well. A recent webinar I attended helped me to understand this.  Users were asked about the most important roles of the library … more than ever before (and the numbers are increasing steadily), the users suggested that we are not primarily a “gateway” as we often like to think, we are not primarily a repository as we often like to think, and we are not the providers of effective search.  What we are is a mechanism for purchasing materials.  They have come to our desks or used our services online and they have understood the message that we send.

It is all about ownership.

We are the people that negotiate with the owners of information, and ensure that their ownership is protected from abuse.  We ensure that people who should stay out, stay out, and administer the security, and pay the yearly fee. Our system of walls between vendors, e-books that can only be used by one person at a time, and off-campus logins, send the message that our primary concern is ownership.  I suppose this is a good message, but I’m a little disappointed that this is being identified as the number one mission of libraries.  We want to be a gateway to good things, we want to help people search for information, we want to teach them about literacy and how information is organized … we want to organize and provide access to information … we want to be involved in discovery.

The guy standing in front of me with the citation who then sits down at the desk to learn our system, is not likely to be convinced …

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Having fun thinking about the iPad.

January 30, 2010

Well, I’ve found the magic formula for actually having readers … now, I shall create a post so long that nobody will want to read it (I’m a dadaist at heart). What I attempting to do here, is not to tell you that you should buy an iPad … many of you shouldn’t.  What I am writing about is how people look at the design of technology. Currently, most people are comparing this thing to what they already have, and there’s the mistake.  I’m pretty sure that the folks at Apple didn’t say “let’s make a better laptop, or let’s replace the desktop” (since they make laptops and desktops (for a purpose) , I doubt that’s what they’re up to)..  They said, “how can we make a device that does what people want, in a way that they like, at a price that they like?” … I enjoy watching Apple to see if they have accomplished this.  It’s very odd to me that people seem to have expected Apple to create new things to do with a computer … the question is whether they have created ways to do the things people do, that are different enough (have the “wow” factor), for people to care, go “wow”, and buy the thing to do what they do with computers.

Anyway, what I enjoy about all Apple announcements is that they get people thinking (even the failures).  The iPad is certainly not an exception and I’ve been working this one out in my head since Jobs took the stage. Many tech people have ripped apart this product without much pause for reflection, and it’s been all about what “it doesn’t have”, or “I can already do that with my other devices”.  This very literal thinking sounds logical and seems to make people happy, but it doesn’t deal with the questions of why a company that moves very deliberately designed this device (and there are reasons), or whether people adopt this thing as their new “appliance”.

One thing that’s very difficult for people to deal with in terms of Apple, is that their new products almost always take away things and appear to offer less, rather than keeping features just because they were there before. The classic case was when the release of the one-button mouse resulted in cries to add another button.  Of course, the next release had zero buttons.  While many take this as corporate stubborn-ness and a “we know what’s good for you” attitude (and I won’t rule those things out), it also the product of thought, and a design decision.  Long ago, I realized that for the Apple decisions that don’t seem to make sense, it is interesting to wait, and see why this thing was designed as it was.  In terms of the mouse, I haven’t had a mouse with a button on it in years, and I don’t miss the buttons.  Whoever decided that you don’t need buttons was right … I don’t, and they aren’t necessary  … it is also true, however, that many people still want buttons, and they should buy a mouse with buttons.   I have a MacBook Air, and it came along exactly when I was thinking that I’d happily not lug around an optical drive that I never use and would like a device that tis meant to work “in the cloud” … Apple took away a lot of things on this device that people moaned about, and some that mystified me.  A couple of years later, the Air is my main productivity computer … of course, that’s me.  If you edit video, don’t get one, it’s the wrong tool.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the Air is a bad tool … it is the perfect tool for lots of people, and certain work … don’t criticize a lock-picking kit because you can’t make a lamp with it.

Anyway, the iPad has been really interesting for thinking about design. Keep in mind that I am talking about the way that it looks (yes), but also the entire range of design from materials to interface. I say this because the number one thing people have said is that this device just does what I can already do, so, who cares?  Well, the answer is actually quite simple.  Really a lot of people care (in fact, I’ve been surprised myself by how many people seem to want an iPad).  In fact, if  “I can already do that” is a reason to reject a new design, I’m not sure why everyone isn’t still using Windows 95 … I read my email, worked on documents, listened to music … I never needed anything else, did I?  To be more clear, I could easily demand that there was never any need to design a car after the AMC Gremlin … I could drive it to work.  Heck, I could drive a Gremlin clear across the country, and even play music while I was doing it. Strangely, people seemed to move on … even though anti-lock brakes and power steering just steer and stop a car, right? And how a car looks doesn’t matter, as long as it drives, right? (I may actually think that, but most people?  Please)

Design matters, and while the design of the exterior is wonderful, design of interface is more important than most think.  So, I admit that you can read your email, create documents, watch movies, and listen to music (and maybe read a book in a crude way) on your laptop. The difference, clearly,  is not function, but how you perform those functions.  The iPhone allowed you to call people, browse the web, and play games … all things that could be done “better” on other devices that people already owned.  So, the iPhone was a flop, right?  In fact, the pundits declared the iPhone an expensive toy on its release and complained about what it didn’t have and couldn’t do.  As we know, it still is not the tool of choice for many in business, but it is very desirable and obviously very functional for other purposes that did not quite exist all in one package before. The most important thing about iPhone design was not its appearance (although that was a huge draw).  The most important thing was the multi-touch interface, the screen, and the App store, I think. So, it is not the best phone, not the best web browser, and not the best gaming interface, but put all of it together and add the interface, and for some millions, it made people say “wow” when they tried it, and is what they want. And they’re not even settling … people desire this technology.

So, the iPad … it doesn’t have too many entirely new functions for a computing device (although the ebook reader may be enough of a leap to be officially considered “new” … not sure yet. While your laptop can perform all of the functions (like email, word processing, watching movies, listening to music) it can’t do them the same way, and yes, that does matter (or you’d be driving a Gremlin … or using Windows 95).  What is different?  Well, the multi-touch interface for one, which is a pretty major “wow” (your laptop does not have that).  It also has an accelerometer for gaming and screen orientation which is a really great way to do many things, a new ebook reader which shows great promise and is directly connected to publishers, the App store where 140,000 applications are available for this device and are often under $5, iTunes for music and movies integrated into the system (rather than as an add-on like on your laptop), a 3G connection with a pretty good monthly plan if you’re a mobile type, a near full-size virtual keyboard (and some of us do like those), a very pretty design, a 1.5 pound weight, a very nice photo organizing ability … and all of this is me forgetting many things and talking about the first-generation before it is introduced.

This machine will do many things that your current machine does not.  In fact, pretty much everything it does it will do in a way that your current machine does not.  Important note:  there are many of you who will not care … that’s okay.  There are millions of you who will continue to buy what runs your latest Windows-based game with the power you need … that’s fine.  Don’t buy this to crunch video files, or shoot a major motion picture … that’s not what it’s made for. What Apple is betting (and they may lose that bet) is that this device will do what a lot of people like, in a way that they like, and for a price that they like. It is different from the machines that you currently own as I have described above (it just is …. those are differences, people).  Whether those differences matter to people has a heck of a lot to do not with what you are doing, but how you are doing it.  Apple has not invented new things to do, it has come up with new ways to do them.

People should stop reading reviews from the tech pundits … they should ask my 11-yr old daughter.  The pundits spent a huge amount of time criticizing the iPhone because it didn’t have cut and paste … my daughter, like millions of others, tried one for about 10 seconds and said, “give me one of those”.

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The iPad … I’ve had a vision.

January 28, 2010

Well,  folks, as always Steve Jobs has stood on a stage and set the whole world to talking (and picking the new thing apart, and making fun of it, and generally missing the point). I was pretty confused for a while now too, but suddenly I get it.  Last night I had a vision and have a sudden urge to buy Appple stock (I’m not kidding … at all).

Here’s the deal.  The world’s large collection of grumpy people has seen the iPad and compared it to their desktop machine or their laptop and don’t understand why they should buy this new thing.  This is precisely the problem.  As some of the pundits have been saying, this is not a computer that competes with your other computers … this is an appliance. The revelation came as I was talking to my wife about this later last night.  I said, “imagine the iPad sitting on its stand on the kitchen counter … it’s nice to look at, it has no cables or other annoying computer things, and when anyone wants to do anything, they just grab it and use it wherever they want.  Check your email while cooking, watch the news, browse the web, consult a cookbook, play music … take it to the deck on a summer night to check your email and use it as a media hub” …. suddenly, I said, “shit, this is exactly what those guys at Apple saw when they were designing this thing.”  My wife said, “we have to get one of these”.  I swear Jobs and his mates saw this happen in countless tests and knew what they had to build … most people don’t need a big computer with all of the bells and whistles.  They just want something to do the things that they do with computers … get and play their music, look up the scores, watch some video, soon to read a book … for $500, this thing will fill that huge niche.

And here’s the real kicker for me.  I thought of this thing in my parents’  house.  They have always grudgingly had a full size PC for the things they do with computers.  They trudge upstairs to it to use dial-up to check their email and buy tickets, etc.  They have no affection for it’s wires and clutter.  Put an iPad on their kitchen counter!  Damn … they can be reading their mail and doing everything, plus discoveering iTunes … for me, they also could get the 3G version and surf all on the cellular network, so I don;t have to worry about anything to do with an ISP and they can take it with them anywhere.  Oh my ….

Now, why didn’t Jobs et al sell it just this way when they introduced.  They used it like a laptop on stage, instead of showing it in the context of a common house … that would have been powerful, but maybe they prefer to let this thing creep up on us.  It is amazing to me how people react to these things. Hardly anyone has shifted the context yet … they’re all still imagining this thing replacing something else in their current environment.  It’s not like that. I was doubtful about this at first, but I now think it’s true … Apple has created a category. (again)

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The Answer.

November 19, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about Google vs. the vendors who have been making lots of money selling us “search” for a while now. Someone brought up the idea that users like the simplicity of the Google front-end, and users also like the faceted searching, recommendations, and all of the other options provided by places like Amazon. The obvious response to me is “wait … what do they like?” … simplicity and a single search box, or all kinds of options for search? They don’t seem like the same thing to me …

The answer comes in the form of a simple quote: “It’s not about the searching, it’s about the finding”.

Sorry to be so obvious, but people like finding the information that they’re looking for no matter what engine is used to deliver that information. A remarkably simplistic, or even downright ugly page that gives me everything that I need will be my favourite site every time. Oddly, Google and Amazon do have a lot in common. Both utilize a huge database of user information to provide me with added value in my searching. Amazon provides me with basic string-matching initially, with the option to start drilling down through the social data if I wish. Google just goes right ahead and does the string-matching and combining with social data before I see a single result.

Of course, this is what I expect from these tools. Most of my Amazon visits are for things that I am already aware of. I may also check the social aspects of it’s search if that looks interesting. Google, on the other hand, is the tool of choice if connections are my primary interest … if I just type in “Merton science social” I want to have all of the relevance calculated and presented and then have “cited by” and “related” links. When the results are uncannily relevant, I am happy.

I like them both. I don’t care what they look like. The vendors make me work much harder for the same result.

That’s it.

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More google-y thoughts …

November 13, 2009

Sitting at the reference desk has caused me to think even more about Google Scholar, and why it has become my primary research tool (this has just happened without thinking about it …. I’m trying to figure out why). Of course, the easy answer is that I get results, and I get them fast.  Lately, students having been sitting down at the desk, we’ve done searches on vendor-supplied tools, and then as a last check, we skip over to Google.  We then do the same search and become very happy.  Google is absolutely kicking butt when it comes to relevance.  It’s often kind of spooky how well they are managing to get precisely what I want at the the top of the list.

I suspect that at least some librarians will suggest that I’m just not using all of the tools of the vendor-supplied indexes and they could be right. However, if I can just type terms into a box and get the results that I need, I am very unlikely to bother to learn all of the little syntax-tricks etc that are supplied with Ebsco, CSA etc.  That’s just not going to happen.  There are also features of Google Scholar that these vendors just can not compete with.  First, not only does relevant material appear at the top of the list, but it also supplies “related items” as a link, and those items are actually related … this is a thing of beauty and a display of the fact that Google actually understands how research is conducted (by finding the network of related materials, not by endless discreet string-matching searches).  Second, Google supplies the “cited by” link, once again displaying an understanding of just what it is we’re trying to accomplish …

… this brings up and EXTREMELY important point.  When Google is searching, it is dealing with all of the literature available to it, not just the chunk that it happens to control access to.  Thus, they can provide links to all of the items related to and citing the article that is your new favourite.  Whereas everyone else demands that you open new windows and catalogs to search for cited articles, Google links directly to them with a single click, and allows you to continue on your related article search.

Now, my most common advice to students doing difficult searches is to find one good article with a decent bibliography, then follow it’s citations and follow the citations of the cited articles … it doesn’t take long to get a grip on the important works in the field as determined by the people actually doing research on the topic. Vendor-supplied tools do not really facilitate this process … although they supply lots of “hits”, they do a far worse job of describing the relationship between articles and researchers.  Of course, the type of searching that you’re doing in these things would seem to be pretty much strictly literal string-matching.  While the article may have all of the terms desired in it, the student and I quite often sit there wondering what the heck this article has to do with the topic (other than  the fact that the words requested appear in it).  This is the magic that Google has worked long and hard (and successfully) on.  Their search has always been about the relationships between articles … not only that the words appear, but also that the article is “significant” in this area of research because of its relationship to other articles.   Thus, the first step of finding that one good article is quite often done for you … there it is at the top of the list.  All of the connections are then supplied and you’re ready to go.

What this brings me around to is that I’m pretty much done with literal string-matching.  It seems like a primitive and clunky way to do any searching outside of looking for something that you already know the precise title of.  Recent improvements that it would seem have happened at Google (Google Scholar has not always been such a satisfying experience) have made it even more obvious that the “journal indexes” are a second-rate search system.  Even when they work well, they lack simplicity of searching for related and cited articles that are active links to the rest of the literature, and this is what research has always been about.  Google has demonstrated to me that they understand research and are trying to make a tool that facilitates that process, rather than a tool that demands that researchers adapt themselves to the tool.  Vendors, on the other hand, demonstrate that they lack the willingness to work on this, but have a great interest in dividing the literature into little islands of property with walls between them, and then charging you a lot to access their little island isolated from the rest of the world.

The problem is that I can’t quite just ditch all of the Ebscos and Ovids, and CSAs, because they still have the full-text in their limited domain.  Although more and more people are by-passing their front-end and just jumping from Google to their content (through the “Get it at Guelph” button), these folks are going to continue to charge a premium for this content, and may be perfectly happy to de-emphasize search in favour of just controlling the knowledge … this part needs to be solved as well.

As may be obvious, I’m not one of those people who are resentful of Google’s efforts … in fact, I resent the fact that all of the vendors have supplied us with mediocre tools at high prices, and have been quite content with their mediocrity.  I am happy that Google has finally got around to making this situation obvious and at least attempting to create a research tool that is suitable for research … I look forward to their next steps.

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