America’s Inadequate Response to the Revolution in Kyrgyzstan

On April 7, 2010 the people of Kyrgyzstan, a far-away country straining under an increasingly oppressive president, liberated themselves. In a revolution recalling those of 1989, protests unexpectedly toppled the authoritarian government. The opposition quickly took control, promising free and fair elections.

The United States government promptly asked if the new administration would allow America to keep its air base in the country. It did not endorse the new government, instead releasing a statement that read:

We remain a committed partner to the development of Kyrgyzstan for the benefit of the Kyrgyz people and intend to continue to support the economic and democratic development of the country.

To be fair, there is some concern over the credibility of the new government. Kyrgyzstan’s president himself came to power after a similar revolution overthrew an authoritarian regime. Power might corrupt the new government as it did with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Moreover, this military base is very important to the interests of the United States. It constitutes a vital logistical component of the war in Afghanistan. Outside of Afghanistan itself, the United States does not have another regional military base.

But sometimes standing for a principle is more important than even the most vital military base. These principles include things such as freedom, liberty, and democracy. America, however imperfectly, has always championed these values. When an oppressed people free themselves, it is a fundamental part of America’s creed to stand with them.

President Barack Obama himself – not Hillary Clinton – should take thirty minutes out of his week to call the new government, congratulating them for their efforts standing against tyranny. He should apologize for supporting Mr. Bakiyev (who in any case was no friend of the United States, having previously threatened to close the base).

Actions like these will be remembered by the new Kyrgyz government long after the United States forgets. They might – in fact, they probably will – even convince it to keep America’s precious air base.


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How Political Scandals Can Distort Reality

In a heated campaign, political scandals can make or break a candidacy. They often cast a shade of suspicion upon a candidate’s activities, with the connotation of wrongdoing or the unethical. Often implicit is the assumption that if only said candidate had done things slightly differently, all this need not happened.

Take Kirsten Gillibrand, the current hard-working Senator from New York. Before entering politics, Ms. Gillibrand used to work as a hard-charging lawyer. Upon being appointed senator, she was criticized for representing tobacco firms during her job as a lawyer.  A New York Times editorial, for instance, skillfully argued that:

She tries to play down her role and suggests that she had no choice. In truth, she had plenty of choice.

Her law firm allowed lawyers to decline work on tobacco cases if they had a moral or ethical objection. It wasn’t simply a matter of working “for the clients that were assigned to her,” as an aide explained. Tobacco duty was optional. She opted in. Others did not.

The editorial goes on to detail the numerous ways in which Ms. Gillibrand “worked closely with company executives.” It is a persuasive argument, a classical political scandal. Why didn’t Ms. Gillibrand just refuse to take the case?

Such was the recent topic at the political website swingstateproject, with several users discussing Ms. Gillibrand’s tobacco connections. One individual posed the same concern as the Times: Ms. Gillibrand should have just refused the case. Then an actual Washington lawyer stepped in:

Well, what the firm “clearly states” might be bullshit……

I’m a lawyer in D.C., and while I’ve never worked in a firm I know a lot of people, including my wife, who do or have worked as attorneys in firms.  A lot of written policy is just bullshit.  Money talks, and money rules.A large law firm often gives its attorneys 4 weeks of paid vacation per year.  Do you know what you call a lawyer who actually uses it?  FIRED.

If you’re a woman, forget about ever suing for sexual harassment, you’ll just be blackballed.

So regarding a policy allowing the right to refuse a particular case, in real life turning a case down can be a career-ender.

This post provides an outline of the context that too often is missing from a political scandal. At first glance, it was entirely possible for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to voluntarily avoid representing tobacco companies. But “in truth,” as the New York Times might say, the unwritten rules that defined her workplace prohibited it. Reality is often quite different from the world inhabited by the Washington Beltway.



Analyzing Swing States: Virginia, Part 4

This is the fourth part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Virginia. It is the second section of two focusing on Northern Virginia, and focuses on analyzing the structural foundation behind NoVa’s Democratic shift. The fifth part can be found here.



In many ways, Northern Virginia represents the best America has to offer. As wealthy, diverse, and rapidly growing suburb, it offers the very essence of the American Dream.

Demographically, Northern Virginia is one of those rare places whose racial composition is representative of America as a whole. In Fairfax County today blacks constitute 9.4% of the population, Hispanics 13.5% (nationally the numbers are 12.3% and 15.1%, respectively). Asians come in at 15.8%, a higher number than the national average.

As has been much noted, Northern Virginia is getting more diverse. In Fairfax County, for instance, the numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians have all increased since the 2000 census – which counted blacks as 8.6%, Hispanics as 11.0%, and Asians as 13.0% of the population.

These changes are especially striking in exurban NoVa. Loudoun County, 2000 was 5.9% Asian and 5.3% Hispanic. Since then those numbers have more than doubled; from 2006-2008, the census estimated Loudoun as 12.3% Asian and 10.1% Hispanic (blacks constituted 7.8% of the county’s population).

Finally, Northern Virginia is very, very, very rich. The median household income in both Fairfax and Loudoun exceeds $100,000; a 2008 census study estimated them as the two wealthiest counties in America (see page 13). More than one-third of individuals over 25 in Arlington County hold graduate degrees, compared with less than 10% of Americans at large. Life expectancy is the highest in the nation.

The Future

Although Northern Virginia continues become more diverse, it is unclear how much more Democratic it can get. Suburbs rarely give a party more than 60% of the vote, and 65% seems to be the upper limit for Democrats. Given that President Barack Obama won 60.12% in Fairfax County, Democrats appear to be near this line.

On the other hand, the suburban metropolis that does break this rule (the Bay Area) has a lot in common with Northern Virginia. Like NoVa, the Bay Area is rich, diverse, and growing. But the Bay is also composed of a majority of minorities; this will not happen anytime soon in Northern Virginia.

Moreover, Virginia is missing the one piece that would truly make it a Democratic stronghold. Democratic suburbs like NoVa often surround poor, astonishingly Democratic cities. The good news is that NoVa does surround such a city – and that city gave Democrats 92.46% of its vote in 2008. The bad news is that the city’s name is Washington D.C.

All this may not matter, however, if Northern Virginia continues its rapid growth. Today the exurbs in Loudoun and Prince Williams are the main sites of development, while Fairfax County’s growth appears to have slowed down. This translates into many more voters:

As Loudoun and Prince Williams become more diverse, moreover, they are been voting ever more Democratic. In 2000 Loudoun voted Republican by a 8.25% margin; in 2008 it voted Democratic by a 15.22% margin.

If Northern Virginia continues growing at this rate – and voting Democratic by a 3-2 margin – Virginia may eventually change into a Democratic-leaning state. This will probably be balanced out as other Democratic states naturally turn Republican-leaning. Nevertheless, adding NoVa to the old Democratic base leaves the Democratic Party in strong shape. That traditional base will be the subject of the next post.



Analyzing Swing States: Virginia, Part 3

This is the third part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Virginia. It is the first section of two focusing on Northern Virginia. The fourth part can be found here.


A vast and growing suburban metropolis, Northern Virginia has become increasingly important in Virginia politics. There, demographic changes have imperiled Republican dominance of Virginia.

To illustrate the exceptional nature of this movement, compare the two elections below. Here is 2000:

Governor George W. Bush has won Virginia by a comfortable 8.1% margin, carving out the traditional Republican coalition of rural and suburban Virginia. As this picture indicates, Virginia Democrats in 2000 really don’t have a base of support, except perhaps the heavily black southeast parts of the state.

Eight years later, Northern Virginia has transformed:

Before digging into the dynamics of modern NoVa, it is worth exploring its past behavior to gain a sense of context.

A History

Northern Virginia was not always as populous as it is today; well into the twentieth century, it remained a rural (and heavily Democratic) backwater. In the 1940 presidential election, for instance, less than 10,000 people voted in Arlington County.

Growth began in the 1940s, however, driven by an ever-expanding federal government. The inner-ring suburbs in Arlington started expanding first, followed by Fairfax County in the 1950s. Like many other white and wealthy suburbs, Northern Virginia leaned Republican during this era.

Unlike some suburbs, however, Northern Virginia never fell in love with Republicanism. In Fairfax County, Republican presidential candidates only once took more than 65% of the vote (in 1972) – something which would regularly happen in a place like Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond.

Change first began in the 1980s, when inner-ring suburbs such as Arlington started voting Democratic. In the 2000 map, one sees Arlington County as the lonely blue bubble to the right of Fairfax County.

By 2000, as the graph above indicates, change was coming to the suburban communities in Fairfax. In 2004 the county voted Democratic by a 7.30% margin, which should have been a warning sign to Republicans. A mere two years later, it powered Democratic candidate Jim Webb to a narrow victory over incumbent Senator George Allen (he won the county by 18.9%). In 2008 Fairfax – well, just look at the map to see what happened in 2008.

In just eight short years, Northern Virginia has turned from a Republican-leaning suburb into a fundamental part of the Democratic base. Virginia has changed from a red state into a purple one, due mainly (but not entirely) to Northern Virginia.

The next post will explore Northern Virginia today – in order to get a sense of how this has happened.



The Madness of Apartheid

In South Africa, East Asians are both white and black at the same time. Here is how this happened:

For many years South Africa’s white minority governed the country through a policy of apartheid – racial segregation and discrimination intended to favor whites and continue white rule. Under the 1950 Population Registration Act, South Africa’s government classified individuals into three racial categories. These constituted Blacks, Whites and Coloureds. It was upon the basis of these classifications that apartheid functioned. It was also upon these classifications that parts of apartheid quickly began to approach the ludicrous.

The world, you see, is not just composed of black people and white people. South Africa’s apartheid system, however, found it hard to deal with those outside its black-and-white classification scheme.

Indians posed one challenge. Numbering more than one million, their presence derived from the trade links of the British Empire, which included colonial India. For white South Africans, Indians constituted a racial puzzle. Obviously they were not white. Yet it was also fairly obvious that they were not black or mixed. Eventually the government added a new category to its system – Indians (which was also termed Asians), who were deemed as having “no historical right to the country.”

The way South Africa dealt with East Asians was even more curious. Compared to Indians, very few resided in the country; practically all of those few were Chinese. Today pre-apartheid Chinese South Africans (and their descendants) number only about 10,000 to 12,000 – although many more have immigrated there since. For most Chinese South Africans (who were classified as the Chinese group of Coloureds), life was fairly similar to that of an Indian South African: they were discriminated against, but not as badly as black Africans.

South Africa, however, instituted several confounding exceptions to this rule. During the apartheid years, the internationally isolated country was quite hungry for foreign investment. As time passed on, a number of rich East Asian countries – Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – did invest money into the country. In 1962, for instance, Japanese company “Yawata Iron & Steel Co. offered to purchase 5,000,000 tons of South African pig iron over a ten-year period.”

Remember that at this very moment East Asians were still being treated as Coloured, second-class citizens – forced to live in segregated facilities, prevented from going into white-only swimming pools, etc. South African officials realized, of course, that this would not do. To encourage continued Japanese investment, they carved out the “honorary white” rule. Japanese were to be treated, for all purposes and intents, as white. When South Korea and Taiwan began investing in South Africa, this rule was extended to Koreans and Taiwanese. It was not, however, ever applied to Chinese South Africans.

This created quite the strange dynamic. Some East Asian South Africans were white; some were not. Korean South Africans were white; Chinese South Africans were Coloured. If you were Taiwanese, you could presumably marry a white person – but marrying a Chinese person was against the law, which forbid interracial marriage. A Japanese individual could swim in the white-only swimming pools; a Chinese individual could not. When asked how this regulation would be enforced, one official admitted, “It would be extremely difficult for our gatekeepers to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese.”

Eventually, under a combination of international pressure and the leadership of Nelson Mandela, apartheid was brought to an end; it was a proud moment of the century. Under the new system, East Asians were initially classified as white due to the “honorary white” policy. In modern South Africa this is generally a bad thing – the government has instituted a far-reaching affirmative action program intended to reverse apartheid’s legacy. Apartheid-era Chinese South Africans thus waged a long fight to be recategorized as “blacks” – victims too of apartheid.

In the summer of 2008 South Africa’s courts agreed; today apartheid-era Chinese South Africans (and their descendants) are officially black. Chinese South Africans who came after apartheid’s end, however, still are “lumped together with whites.” Finally, most South Africans would probably regard East Asian South Africans as either Coloured or Asian (which generally means Indian in the country).

In other words, an East Asian person can be either white, black, or Indian Asian in South Africa.

Perhaps a better idea would be to stop differentiating people by skin color altogether.

How Special Interests Crippled Education Reform

When Congress passed the health care bill, with it came a momentous education reform. Signed into law by President Barack Obama, its intention was to help relieve the ever-rising burden imposed by soaring college fees and tuition rates.

This reform was funded by ending a government subsidy to big banks in the business of student loans. Under the previous system, the government ensured that student lenders would always make money; if students defaulted on their loans, the government would pay the money to the student lenders. In a CBS 60 minutes report, think tank expert Michael Dannenberg characterized this as:

a socialist-like system,” he says. “It’s not as if this private entity is assuming any risks. No, no, no. The law makes sure that this so-called private entity has virtually no risk.”

Unfortunately for students, this lucrative government-funded industry did relatively little to benefit them. Take a look at Sallie Mae, perhaps the biggest player in the student loan industry. Sallie Mae’s loans carry a variable interest rate, which right now appears to be 10.55%. In addition it charges a disbursement fee of 3%; other banks have similar fees.

Such practices can make already high student debt astronomical. Take Brit Napoli, who originally borrowed $38,000. According to the CBS report, that loan has ballooned to $71,000. College graduate Lynnae Brown’s $60,000 loan has jumped to an astounding $262,383 after she fell behind in payments.

Education reform was intended to help people like Brit Napoli and Lynnae Brown. Subsidies for big banks and corporations like Sallie Mae were ended. Money for poor people to attend college was expanded. Money was even saved by ending these government subsidies.

The special interests fought every step of the way. They lobbied. They waved cash at Senators. They argued that their jobs were at stake (therefore the bill would “take away jobs”), and that teenagers deserved more choices. In the end, they succeeded in vastly weakening the original ambitions embodied in education reform.

The original bill envisioned a rise in maximum Pell Grants – federal money for low-income students to attend college – from $5,350 today to $6,900 in 2019. Interest on federal student loans was to remain relatively low: 3.4% past 2012 (compare that with Sallie Mae’s 10.55%). Money was to be invested in early childhood education, community colleges (the American Graduation Initiative) and a College Access and Completion Fund. Federal Perkins loans were to be reformed “to reward institutions for their success in graduating low-income students.”

By the time special interests were done with the bill, almost all of this was gone. That increase in Pell Grants – it’s now only up to $5,975, a paltry $62.50 per year. In other news, Harvard College increased its tuition by $1868 for the 2010-2011 year (for a total cost of $50,724).

As for federal student loans: in 2013 the interest rate goes right back up to 6.8%. Investment in community colleges was cut by 80%. Reform of Perkins loans, investment in early childhood education, and the College Access and Completion Fund were scrapped altogether.

This is not to say that education reform has been a miserable failure. Without it, things would be far worse. The maximum Pell Grant would have decreased to $2,150 – or 4.2% the cost of attending Harvard for one year. Community colleges still get some money. Investment in historically black colleges hasn’t been cut. The government will no longer protect lenders who prey on unsophisticated students.

But boy did the special interests succeed in gutting a wonderful bill. The saddest part, moreover, is that their efforts were all pointless. All the lobbying, all the money thrown at Senators like Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Kent Conrad (ND) – it only served to delay the bill. The government subsidies which Sallie Mae so desperately protected are gone. In the end, the only thing the special interests were able to do was make college more unaffordable for millions of poor Americans.



Interesting Voting Patterns

It’s widely known that the Democratic Party rests upon a voting base of minorities – those who don’t completely fit within the American mainstream. After the Civil War, the states in the former Confederacy voted Democratic. When Catholics were discriminated against, they voted Democratic.

Today the most well-known Democratic minorities constitute blacks and Latinos. President Barack Obama’s coalition rested firmly upon these votes – a problem in mid-term elections, when these voters tend not to turn out.

There are, however, a lot of very Democratic minorities out there other than just blacks and Hispanics. Asians and Native Americans, for instance, vote Democratic. Immigrants have always tended to vote Democratic. Women also lean Democratic.

This can lead to quite interesting voting patterns.

For more than a generation (1932 to 1964), for instance, both blacks and segregationists voted Democratic. The Democratic Party’s tent was so wide it covered both Martin Luther King Jr. and George Wallace. At one time, Democratic politicians included both Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. – the first black congressman from New York – and Mississippi Senator James Eastland, who once said:

In every stage of the [Montgomery] bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers…African flesh-eaters. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives…All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.

And to think both men called themselves Democrats!

Today the Democratic Party still creates strange alliances. It brings together groups which absolutely despise each other.

Take Jews. They have always voted extremely Democratic based upon social issues and discrimination from the main-stream. 77% of Jews voted for Obama.

So do Arabs. They have been alienated by former President Bush’s policies regarding the Middle East. In 2008 Zogby projected Democrats to win 68% of the Arab vote (I suspect that estimate low-balls the actual results).

When Jews and Arabs are both overwhelmingly voting the same way, that’s ironic. That’s the Democratic Party today.



Why Do Conservatives Push Climategate?

On any given day, if one is browsing through the current discussion on global warming, the topic of “Climategate” will often come up. Climategate alleges that climate scientists exaggerated the data to support global warming as part of their hidden agenda to push the theory.

Climategate will almost invariably be mentioned by a conservative commentator, seeking to attack the scientific consensus behind global warming. Conservative backing of Climategate is just another part of a long-standing pattern; for years, some conservatives have sought to deny the existence of global warming.

The point of this post is not to discuss the validity of Climategate. Scientists are not the all-seeing Gods society often labels them; they are humans too and prone to human errors. That does not mean that their conclusions are incorrect (notice how the controversial data always seems to be “exaggerated” but still actually backs global warming).

The puzzle, rather, is why some conservatives do this. There doesn’t seem to be a point to it, simply put. Conservative philosophy is not inherently anti-global warming; being a Republican does not necessarily mean one must believe global warming doesn’t exist.

This is different from other, more understandable stands a conservative might take. If a scientific study came out whose conclusions supported the pro-choice movement (e.g. fetuses don’t actually feel pain until they’re born, or something like that), it would make sense for conservatives to question the study. Being pro-life constitutes a fundamental part of conservative ideology; it goes with “traditional values” and “family.” Similarly, if a hypothetical study found that tax cuts are ineffective, one would also expect conservatives to attack it. This is because cutting taxes constitutes part of the conservative philosophy, which emphasizes smaller government and individualism.

In contrast, denying global warming does not have anything to do with what conservatives stand for. Unlike abortion or taxes, global warming is not an issue to be fought over but a coming challenge to be faced.

Moreover, there exists a conservative solution to the challenge. This is called cap-and-trade, which uses the power of the market to solve a fundamental problem. Conservatives are supposed to like this stuff; free markets constitute the bread-and-butter of their philosophy. Conservative President George H.W. Bush implemented a cap-and-trade program which essentially solved the problem of acid rain. In contrast, a liberal solution to global warming (one which many liberal institutions theoretically favor) would be a carbon tax, which uses government to solve the problem.

The problem, of course, is that that radical socialist Barack HUSSEIN Obama also supports cap-and-trade. As with so many issues facing the nation today, the stances of conservatives seem purely based upon being against what liberals favor (even if they favor conservative ideas such as cap-and-trade).

Now, to be fair, liberals also have a job to do. Too often their arguments have been made with the wrong tone: the type of arrogant, “I-am-better-than-you” style which does nothing more than harden stances on both sides. The scientific community is not exempt from this critique (if anything, it is even more guilty of claiming intellectual superiority over the rest of us mortals). When liberals label those who disbelieve global warming “idiots,” that does not convince conservatives that global warming is real.

Indeed, both sides must mature their stances with respect to the problem of global warming. Liberals ought to address conservative grievances with respect, not arrogant high-handedness. Conservatives ought to realize that questioning the existence of global warming has nothing to do with being a conservative and stop pushing nonsensical theories like “Climategate”.



Polarization: Past and Present

A number of commentators have lamented increasing polarization in Washington. Conventional wisdom has it that America is as divided and partisan as it ever has been. Sectional divisions are tearing this country apart and preventing problems such as the deficit from being addressed; the differences between blue America and red America, in this view, are rapidly approaching crisis point.

There is some justice to this view. Polarization has probably increased, by a number of metrics, over the past few elections. Indeed, I previously noted something to this exact effect.

Let’s take another look, however, at the hypothesis, using a different type of measurement. We will consider the composition of the House of Representatives, specifically examining partisan divisions by state. Do blue states elect Republican representatives, and vice versa? In a polarized nation, this would probably not be the case.

Here is a map of a House with a Republican majority:

This House was the result of 2002 congressional elections. Republicans had done well in the wake of 9/11, and they had a 232-201 majority.

In the map there are relatively few states with 80-100% of representatives from one party. Blue states elect Republicans; red states elect Democrats. Moreover; for some states (e.g. Delaware, the Dakotas) it is mathematically impossible to be less than 100% Democratic or Republican.

Here is the House today:

This is a fascinating map in that it almost perfectly matches the 2008 electoral college. One sees the Republican corridor of strength in the South and Mountain West. Most of the map is blue since Democrats have a 255-178 majority, the result of two previous Democratic landslides.

Let’s move back several decades:

The date is 1960; President John Kennedy has just been elected. Democrats hold a 258-177 majority, almost identical to that today.

There are a lot more “one-party states” compared to the current map. Sectional division is far more pronounced; there is a line between North and South that simply does not exist in today’s House. In 1960 – especially in the still-standing Solid South – blue states generally did not elect Republicans, and vice versa.

Polarization grows even worse if one goes back further.

Here is 1894:

Republicans have just won 130(!) seats. They hold a 254 to 93 majority.

In this incredible map, there are only six states with congressional delegations less than 80-100% from one party. In it one can literally trace the battlefields of the Civil War.

This is real polarization, the results of a nation so divided it had literally torn itself in two. This is the type of polarization that results from scars so deep that they took more than a century to heal.

Perhaps today America is indeed growing more polarized, more divided into red states and blue states. But when one compares the present situation to past ones, there is literally no comparison. The United States has a long way to go before it gets as polarized as it did during the latter half of the 19th century.



The Night Health Care Passed: Strange Happenings at Fox and MSNBC

Sunday evening, as a long-debated health care bill passed through Congress, something quite strange was happening on the websites of two eminent news organizations.

Here was Fox News, Sunday night:

Fox News, of course, is famous as an embodiment of the right-wing machine. Yet its web page last night looked like a resounding endorsement of the health care bill. There is a dignified picture of the president, in a room full of celebrating aides. The picture is titled, in big white font, “This is what change looks like.”

If one clicks on the picture, the subtitles are sometimes quite left-leaning. On Fox Business: “It’s Here: Democrats Pass Sweeping Health Care Reform.” Below the image: “Obama Celebrates With Hugs and High Fives.” One subtitle implies Republican craziness: “Stupak Called ‘Baby-Killer,” presumably by a Republican.

Then there was the MSNBC response:

MSNBC is often depicted as the liberal contrast to Fox News. Last night, however, MSNBC’s website appeared anything but happy.

Take a look. The title – “House Sends Health Care Bill to Obama” – is far more restrained than Fox’s “This is What Change Looks Like.” There’s a somewhat unflattering portrait of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

And the details could have come from Fox itself. First, MSNBC assures its readers that the Democrats haven’t won yet; “there’s no certainty that the Senate will pass the House’s ‘corrections’ bill intact.” Then, just below, a poll asks the audience if they’re “jazzed or mad?” On the Stupak deal, an article claims that “Both anti-abortion groups and abortion rights supporters slam Dem’s deal.”

In other words, MSNBC was behaving just like…Fox would. And Fox was behaving just like MSNBC.

So what happened? Did the staffs of Fox and MSNBC suddenly switch places? Did Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Zucker decide to play an early April Fools joke? Was it just coincidence that Fox was acting like MSNBC, and MSNBC was acting like Fox?

We may never know.



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