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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pinker pulls no punches

From the Web site. It will be a good sign for science if Pinker isn't burned in effigy like Larry Summers. I imagine in some quarters he is already the bogey man of the 21st century.

Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments

The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what will I predict will become the dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.

In January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life priorities.

In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense. )

In June, the Times reported a forthcoming study by physicist Greg Cochran, anthropologist Jason Hardy, and population geneticist Henry Harpending proposing that Ashkenazi Jews have been biologically selected for high intelligence, and that their well-documented genetic diseases are a by-product of this evolutionary history.

In September, political scientist Charles Murray published an article in Commentary reiterating his argument from The Bell Curve that average racial differences in intelligence are intractable and partly genetic.

Whether or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. Summers was subjected to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence, and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents). The underlying fear, that reports of group differences will fuel bigotry, is not, of course, groundless.

The intellectual tools to defuse the danger are available. "Is" does not imply "ought. " Group differences, when they exist, pertain to the average or variance of a statistical distribution, rather than to individual men and women. Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that all groups are indistinguishable. Yet many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points, to say nothing of the wider world community.

Advances in genetics and genomics will soon provide the ability to test hypotheses about group differences rigorously. Perhaps geneticists will forbear performing these tests, but one shouldn't count on it. The tests could very well emerge as by-products of research in biomedicine, genealogy, and deep history which no one wants to stop.

The human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement. I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realize that cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source of replacement organs, no one will want to do it. Likewise, when they realize that most genes have costs as well as benefits (they may raise a child's IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease), "designer babies" will lose whatever appeal they have. But the prospect of genetic tests of group differences in psychological traits is both more likely and more incendiary, and is one that the current intellectual community is ill-equipped to deal with.

The point about costs associated with benefits from certain genes is a bit off the mark. Even if it is so, there are still desirable combinations of genes, just as there are some people who are above average over a broad range of abilities. (Or, some parents will accept associated problems in order for their child to be the next Michael Jordan or Einstein.) I would be surprised if market-driven technologies did not arise to satisfy the demand for genetic engineering.

Chinese exceptionalism

Thanks to Brad Setser for recommending the following paper by economist Dani Rodrik, which describes how China's economy is quite atypical of a developing country at its income level. Setser adds that it is quite unusual for a developing country to expend 10% of GDP each year intervening in FX markets to keep its currency cheap. All this sounds like an argument that the RMB is undervalued...

NewEconomist: In a new paper, Harvard's Dani Rodrik asks What's So Special About China's Exports? (PDF) The short answer is that "China is exporting stuff that is way too sophisticated for its level of income, and that explains part of its success". Here's the longer version:

..what is so special about China’s exports is not that they are voluminous or that its large pool of labor gives it a huge labor cost advantage. What stands out is that China sells products that are associated with a productivity level that is much higher than a country at China’s level of income. This helps account both for why China’s trade is viewed as problematic in advanced countries, and for China’s rapid economic growth.

The economically relevant question for sustainability is not whether trade-GDP can keep on rising, but whether China will manage to latch on to higher- and higher-income products over time, and continue to fuel its growth thereby.

Rodrik is sceptical that China can manage it; if not, "this is something that is likely to slow down growth." He concludes by discussing the nature of future industrial policies:

A clear implication of this paper is that China’s industrial policies - however incoherent they may have been - have had a hand in China’s past success. Future economic performance may also need to be supported by such policies.

...Therefore, a key question for China going forward is whether Chinese policies will maintain their experimental and flexible nature - whether governments will remain willing to support new industries but also willing to turn against ventures that under-perform. Designing the appropriate institutional structure to foster such an experimental, carrot-and-stick approach to industrial policy is an important challenge facing Chinese policy makers. This is an area where institutional transplantation does not work very well.

...The challenge for China therefore is to develop institutional models that are based on Chinese realities.

Monday, January 23, 2006

More podcasts

Sorry for the lack of posts -- I'm being slowly crushed down by two babies, a startup and physics research!

Here are more podcast recommendations. The first two are hilarious, despite the serious topics!

Evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers (previously profiled here) discusses the evolution of deceit and self-deception. It's plausible to me that the ability to decieve yourself is adaptive -- it makes it easier to lie convincingly, vilify your enemies, justify your actions, etc.

Trilogy co-founder and CEO Joe Liemandt describes how he dropped out of Stanford and ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt to start his company. Although it's a big, well-known software company, I never knew what Trilogy actually did until I listened to this podcast. Their original product was a "configurator" which solved very complicated constraints (i.e., compatibility of components) faced by computer manufacturers like Silicon Graphics, HP and IBM. Nowadays Liemandt describes their software as performing constrained, object-oriented database search. He conveys just how tough and exhilarating it is to start a company.

Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to start TheFaceBook, strikes me as a naturally talented entrepreneur, despite his youth (he is still in his early twenties). With over 5 million users (many of them obsessive), TheFaceBook is set to surpass Google in number of pageviews per day! Given the positive network effects for social software, and the fact that at many schools something like 80+ percent of students already use TheFaceBook, I don't see how competitors will ever displace these guys.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Outsourcing CS homework?

Those creative, enterprising Americans are at it again! They've outsourced boring, low value-added tasks like learning C++ to foreigners! Thanks to yankee ingenuity we'll grow our GDP through real cutting edge innovation, like organizing raves or inventing new ways to dispense shots. Who needs all that math anyway? :-)

WSJ: ...But what the computer-programming student who goes by the handle "Lover Of Nightlife" did last month, as the fall semester raced to a close, could only have happened in the age of the Internet: He went online to outsource his predicament.

"This is homework I did not have time to study for," he said in a message on a Web site devoted to outsourcing computer projects. "I need you guys to help me."

Attached was a take-home final exam for a computer class that Mr. Nightlife Lover wanted to pay someone else -- presumably, someone from a place where people can't afford a lot of night life to begin with -- to take for him.

This bit of commerce took place on, a Web site that has been mentioned before in this column as an example of globalization in all its blood-curdling efficiency. Rent A Coder enables people -- usually Americans -- who need computer programs to put them out to bid -- usually for cut-throat prices by Indians and Eastern Europeans.

But if U.S. companies can go online to outsource their programming, why can't U.S. computer students outsource their homework -- which, after all, often involves writing sample programs? Scruples aside, no reason at all. Search for "homework" in the data base of Rent A Coder projects, and you get 1,000 hits. (An impressive number, but still a tiny fraction of all computer students, the vast majority of whom are no doubt an honest and hardworking lot.)

A few examples: "I need a simple console-based program and a PHP script written that uses the openssl library." "I need 2 algorithms filtering -- median and Gaussian." "A C++ program that will implement a billing system using threads. Needs to be completed tonight if possible."

Indeed, some programming students appear to be outsourcing their way through college. "Pascal Rookie," from Colorado Springs, Colo., has put five school projects to bid. And while he may be a plagiarist, at least he treats his helpers well: Mr. Rookie has received the highest marks possible for a buyer in the eBay-like rating system used by Rent A Coder. "A pleasure to work with him," said one.

You can't tell from the site how much was paid for the help, but usually it's well less than $100.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Math rules!

Says the cover of BusinessWeek. It's a pretty lightweight article (see the amusing graphic How much math do you need to know?), but in all seriousness I do believe the economic returns to mathematical ability are going up and up. Yet, oddly, salaries of scientists have been stagnant in real terms over the last decade. (See also here.)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Prediction markets and the LHC

We're nearing a new era in particle physics, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN begins operation, and hopefully we'll finally discover the mechanism by which spontaneous symmetry breaking occurs in the electroweak theory. The vacuum state of our universe chooses a direction in the SU(2) x U(1) gauge space, thereby making the W and Z bosons heavy, and giving masses to spin-1/2 particles like the electron. We've been waiting for decades now to understand the detailed dynamics by which this occurs. Had the US SuperCollider project not been terminated in the early 1990's, we would have known the answer back in the 20th century. Now our hopes rest on a less powerful machine in Geneva.

In an earlier post I noted the inability of "experts" in certain fields (economics, political science, foreign affairs) to predict the future. They barely outperform monkeys throwing darts, and do not outperform well-informed lay people in their predictions. Can particle theorists do better? Over the years, theorists have expended an incredible number of high IQ person-hours investigating certain models of electroweak symmetry breaking (ranging from supersymmetry, to strong QCD-like interactions, to extra dimensions, etc.). These are more or less mutually exclusive possibilities, so it will turn out that much (if not most) of the time spent will have been completely wasted once the dust settles and the data tells us how Nature really works. (You might argue that time spent on exploring a speculative particle physics model is not wasted, even if the model fails to describe reality, and I might accept that point of view for the 10 or 100 best papers written on a particular model or idea, but not for the 1000th!)

I propose that we set up a prediction market where theorists can put their money (inevitably, small sums :-) where their mouths are. In a prediction market one trades outcome contracts which pay off a fixed amount (say, one dollar) in the event that the outcome matches reality (Kerry wins 2004 election, superpartner to gluon discovered with mass less than 100 GeV, etc.). If the set of contracts is exhaustive -- constructed to cover all possibilities (in our case, there may have to be a "none of the above" contract), the prices of each contract will reflect the probability that the community collectively assigns to a given outcome. It would be very interesting to see if this market does a good job of predicting the future, or if proud particle theorists are just as subject to the madness of crowds as stock and real estate speculators.

We might get the Iowa Electronic Markets to help us with this.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Barry Diller interview

Nice podcast of an interview with former media mogul (now Internet mogul) Barry Diller. Diller recently added Ask Jeeves (which bought its search technology from Teoma) to his list of Internet properties, which includes Match and Expedia. Diller reasons very cogently about risk taking and business strategy, and seems to have a much firmer grasp of where Internet technologies are heading than most media-industry transplants. His description of the assumptions behind the Ask acquisition, and of his partnership with Rupert Murdoch in FoxTV are both revealing. I don't agree with everything he says (he's quite negative about the prospects for user-generated content, and overconfident about the efficiency of talent-filtering in our current system), but it is definitely worth a listen. It amuses me greatly that Diller has a better intuitive grasp of the term speculative than many researchers (string theorists) in my field :-) He refers to the $2.6 billion Skype acquisition using that term, as well other recent transactions.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Greenspan gets it, will Bernanke?

Greenspan seems to grasp the effect of globalization on US wages and inflation.

WSJ: Buried in the minutes of the Federal Reserve's Dec. 13 policy meeting, released last week, was this bland observation: Fed officials "noted that robust competition -- including from foreign producers...[was] helping to contain cost and price pressures."

Markets largely ignored the sentence, but it's one of the most important factors guiding Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan in his final weeks at the helm of the nation's central bank. Mr. Greenspan has marveled at how inflation and wage growth have stayed low even as the economy continues to grow robustly and the jobless rate falls below 5%, a level that has often driven up wages and prices. Searching for an explanation, he has hit on globalization.

If the Fed thinks growing imports, outsourcing and international investment are holding a lid on wages and prices, then interest rates can be lower than they otherwise would. Indeed, as the minutes show, this is one reason the Fed seems to think it can stop raising rates soon. Of course, there is no guarantee Ben Bernanke, nominated to succeed Mr. Greenspan, will be guided by the same sentiments.

...Now, with productivity growth leveling off and unemployment declining, Mr. Greenspan has fingered globalization as the missing variable that explains why inflation is so low. He began this avenue of inquiry in 2003 when he was trying to understand how U.S. trade deficits, which must be financed by borrowing overseas, could keep growing with no upward pressure on U.S. interest rates and little downward pressure on the dollar. His conclusion was that the U.S. can run large deficits with its trading partners because investors have become less sensitive to international borders in deciding where to put their money.

Last year, he expanded the explanatory power of globalization to include its influence on inflation and wages. The integration of the former Soviet Union, China and India into world markets would "approximately double the overall supply of labor," he told Congress, and prove a major contributor to "the disinflationary pressures that have been evident in the global economy."

...Often the mere threat that production may move offshore is enough to trigger wage concessions. Auto-parts supplier Delphi Corp., now in bankruptcy protection, has asked for steep wage and benefit cuts from its workers to meet customer demands that it match the prices of low-cost foreign suppliers. Several academic researchers say this "threat effect" has depressed wages and increased inequality in numerous countries, both rich and poor.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Better than the yield curve?

A yield curve inversion has often been an indicator of recession. However, talk is abundant that "this time it's different" -- long yields are low because of foreign central bank buying, not because the market is predicting recession.

Bill Gross of PIMCO touts a better indicator than the yield curve. He compares time-averaged (say, 5 year duration) rates to short term rates, in contrast with the instantaneous values plotted on the yield curve. It appears this indicator has been more reliable in the past, and is currently predicting an economic slowdown and a bull market for bonds.

This 5-year swap concept is important because the U.S. economy operates in much the same way. With close to a 5-year average life, the entire U.S. bond market can be compared to a 5-year fixed swap. That means that companies, homeowners, and consumers that have borrowed money in recent years – (and purchased assets such as a home that are akin in my example to a 5-year swap) – are now being squeezed in a flat yield curve environment. Visualize a real life example in which you have “financed” a home with an adjustable rate mortgage (in my example you finance a 5-year swap with floating 3-month Libor). As the cost of the ARM increases with higher short rates, your excess income available to spend on discretionary items begins to shrink. If that ARM rate goes too high, you hunker down even more by not eating out, going to movies, or taking a vacation to exotic destinations. The economy in other words slows down. How does this translate into a bond market timing tool? Chart I shows but one of a series of graphs PIMCO uses to indicate when enough is enough – the point at which adjustable short rates rise sufficiently to make the owner of a home or a 5-year swap, or more importantly the economy, cry “no más!” That point comes in this example when Fed Funds rise to meet the average cost of intermediate Treasury financing issued over the past 5 years and the spread between the two disappears.

For sophisticates, please note that this is not the same thing as a flat yield curve. A flat yield curve is a concept comparing current short rates to current 5- and 10-year rates. What my chart does is to compare current short rates to the Treasury’s average intermediate term “coupon,” a more reliable and indicative indicator of economic pain or restrictiveness since it uses an average embedded cost of debt concept instead of a current cost. The standard flatness as measured by current market rates in early 1995 (not shown here) never led to a recession, only a slowdown, just as Chart I would have indicated. In other words, this indicator called for a mild slowdown in 1995which is what we got. The standard flat curve theory called for something more extreme which is something we never got. The embedded cost of debt indicator, therefore, shown in Chart I, has been more reliable.

...yields have peaked in the bond market and will soon peak in Fed Funds producing an economic slow-down in 2006. If the Fed goes beyond 41⁄2% and inverts the yield curve, the possibility of recession will increase. Observant readers will have already noted that the current data point in Chart I is not only calling for an end to the bear bond market, but a recession at some point 12-18 months hence. Perhaps. Much will depend on the future condition of the U.S. housing market and of course global economies – primarily of the Asian variety.

Speculative flows, the yuan and deflation in China

This Times article suggests that speculative currency flows into yuan have dropped off drastically as hopes of a significant near-term revaluation have faded. Particularly interesting is the claim that the inflationary forces felt recently in China were more due to "hot money" from outside rather than overheating of the economy. With growth rates in the 10% range there are few signs of inflation now.

...Hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed into China in recent years, driving the country's total reserves beyond Japan's, to $860 billion. But this fall, only half as much money flowed into China as a year earlier.

Investors in the once red-hot Shanghai property market are walking away, and currency speculators who had bet that China would sharply strengthen the yuan have pulled back as it became clear that the authorities favor a slow approach to currency appreciation.

The flow of money has diminished even with the rise in the Chinese trade surplus, which has tripled in the last year to the irritation of politicians and business executives from Washington to Brussels to Tokyo. They want Chinese officials to let the yuan rise faster to make the country's exports more expensive in foreign markets.

In July, authorities revalued the yuan only slightly after trading partners complained that its link to the dollar kept exports cheaper than they would otherwise be. That, combined with very low interest rates, damped investment enthusiasm.

The slowing of speculative investments "takes the pressure off" Chinese authorities to allow appreciation, said William Belchere, chief Asia economist at Macquarie Securities here.

The reduced speculation has brought measurable advantages as well: inflation has almost disappeared, even as the economy grew at a 9.8 percent rate last year. Economists attribute this in part to dwindling amounts of speculative money sloshing around the economy.

China has also enjoyed excellent harvests, and there has been so much investment in new factories that a recent government report estimated that three-quarters of all categories of manufactured goods suffered from oversupply.

"There's no pricing capacity for anything," said Jing Ulrich, a J. P. Morgan economist here. "Food prices are falling," she said, and those for manufactured goods "are seeing stagnation at best."

...The central bank said late Tuesday that it wanted to keep the yuan's exchange rate "basically stable at an adaptive and equilibrium level." It added that big fluctuations "will adversely affect China's economic and financial stability and undermine China's fundamental interests."

Qu Hongbin, a senior economist at HSBC, said speculators had expressed disappointment that China did not let the yuan rise more in July and was keeping short-term interest rates at half the levels in the United States. Speculative inflows have virtually disappeared as a result.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Japan chipmakers: industrial policy gone bad

Proponents of industrial policy should have a careful look at the chip industry in Japan for an example of how badly wrong things can turn out. In the 80's the US formed an industry-government consortium called Sematech to combat what seemed to be an unstoppable Japanese juggernaut. The semiconductor industry was given as a prime example where the US had dropped the ball and where Japanese industrial policy, formulated by MITI, would lead to domination of yet another market. Now, Samsung alone spends more on chip R&D and infrastructure than all of Japan combined!

That the NEC President could say "It's a big risk to limit yourself to a small number of products. Those have to be very strong products," shows the enormous gulf between Japanese corporate thinking and the competitive and entrepreneurial spirit we have here. Innovative companies here are often one (or few) product companies. If your product isn't strong, why are you in that market in the first place?

Choosing technology winners and losers is probably not an area in which government will outperform the market. Is a bureaucrat going to do a better job than entrepreneurs, VCs and big company CEOs with skin in the game? We're better off putting our resources into basic science (the underlying infrastructure for technological advances) and science and engineering education.

In the late 1980's, Japan dominated the global computer chip industry, overtaking the United States in what was seen as a symbol of American economic decline and Japanese ascendance.

Those roles have been reversed. Japan's global market share is now half of what it was then, while Intel of Santa Clara, Calif., has risen to become the world's largest and most profitable chip maker. Indeed, Intel and Samsung Electronics, a South Korean company that was not even in the picture in Japan's glory days, together have a market share as large as the combined shares of the 20 large Japanese chip makers tracked by the research firm iSuppli.

Japanese chip makers are trying to snap out of this decline by joining forces, either by sharing factory construction costs or through outright mergers. The latest move came Dec. 28, when the Japanese chip makers Hitachi, Toshiba and Renesas Technology announced they were in talks to jointly build a semiconductor factory, a project that would be backed by the government. The media has called the plant the Rising Sun chip factory, after Japan's flag.

Efforts to combine forces have failed in the past: a wave of mergers two years ago produced companies as unprofitable as their predecessors.

At their height in 1988, Japanese companies produced 51 percent of the world's semiconductors, and the top three chip makers by market share - NEC, Toshiba and Hitachi - were all Japanese. Now, Japanese companies have a combined share of 23.4 percent of the $237.3 billion global semiconductor market, according to iSuppli. Just three Japanese companies made the Top 10.

"This has been a lost decade and a half for Japanese semiconductor companies," said Yoshiharu Izumi, an analyst at J. P. Morgan Securities. "Japan has been caught between the United States and Asia, and this middle ground keeps shrinking."

The chip makers' woes have spurred much soul-searching in Japan, where the industry had been a source of national pride. But analysts say an intense sense of national mission in Japan's chip industry has been one cause of its undoing.

For years, chip makers helped the country's export machine by supplying consumer electronics companies with every type of semiconductor imaginable, often at little regard for profits. Much of this was done in-house, as many of today's chip companies started life as divisions of Japanese electronics giants.

Chip sales rose while Japan's consumer electronics were globally dominant, but plunged when the world started buying cheaper televisions, laptop computers and other products made elsewhere in Asia. As losses mounted, many Japanese electronics companies could no longer afford their chip operations and spun them off as separate companies. These new companies lacked the cash to keep pace with the billions of dollars that rivals like Intel and Samsung were spending on new factories and production lines.

Now, many analysts here say, the only way the industry can save itself is by learning from American chip makers like Intel and Texas Instruments, which reinvented themselves two decades ago in response to Japan's strength. These United States companies succeeded by building strong overseas sales networks and concentrating their resources on a small number of products that they made well. Intel focused on building microprocessors, the brains of personal computers, and now dominates the global market. Texas Instruments specialized in chips used in cellphones.

"In the 1980's, the United States figured out a new business strategy," said Toshio Nakajima, president of NEC Electronics, the chip subsidiary of the Japanese electronics giant NEC. NEC fell from being the world's largest chip maker in 1988 to the 10th-largest today. "It is remarkable how these American companies learned to compete."

Mr. Nakajima said his company might eventually focus production on just three types of chips, though it had not decided which three. "It's a big risk to limit yourself to a small number of products. Those have to be very strong products," he said.

Toshiba is doing well focusing production on a specialized product, advanced NAND flash memory chips that are used in digital cameras and music players like the Apple iPod. Toshiba's chip revenues are expected to have grown a healthy 7 percent in 2005, according to iSuppli. (Like most companies, Toshiba does not break out its chip sales figures.)

The picture is not so rosy for the rest of Japan's industry. Of the 20 Japanese chip makers tracked by iSuppli, 12 are expected to report reduced revenues in 2005, including NEC Electronics and Renesas, which was created by the 2003 merger of the chip operations of Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric.

The Japanese chip makers' problems are not the result of a lack of technology but an overdependence on their home market. Even the three biggest chip makers - Toshiba, Renesas and NEC - still sell about 60 percent of their chips within Japan, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. By contrast, Intel, Samsung and Texas Instruments do about 80 percent of their business outside their home countries.

Another problem is high costs, partly because of outdated and inefficient factories. As sales fell, companies had to cut back on buying new facilities and equipment. In 2002, such spending by all Japanese chip makers totaled 266 billion yen (about $2.3 billion), a third of its level in 1989, according to J. P. Morgan. It is now back up to 741 billion yen ($6.3 billion), still barely enough to keep pace with the $33 billion that Samsung alone plans to spend over the next six years to build nine new semiconductor production lines.

Japan's powerful bureaucrats, who originally helped guide the industry to preeminence, have been urging companies to pool money and technology, with limited success. They originally pressed the largest half-dozen companies to cooperate in building the Rising Sun semiconductor factory, which could cost as much as $3 billion. But the effort was delayed for years as companies failed to agree on what kind of chips Japan should focus its resources on. In the end, just three companies announced that they would join the project.

"Japanese companies have been looking hard for a winning strategy," said Tatsuya Fujiwara, deputy director in charge of the semiconductor industry at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. "They still haven't found one yet."

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