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COMPUTING COLUMNIST

A self-described "geek lite," Nancy fell in love with computers when a college classmate described her as illogical, and challenged her to take a course in computing. Granted, it was the days of Hollerith cards, but she has been fascinated with computers and technology ever since. (And she passed the course!) Read more >>






02/18/2014 02:32 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

No, there's no news here. Facebook does the expected, and the unexpected. And the real "news" is, we don't all have the same Facebook experience!

I know we all "know" that, but we don't always remember it.

A week or so ago, users of Facebook were treated to a truly delightful surprise: depending on how long you'd been using the service, you got a personally tailored "video" of your time line - when you joined, "your first moments," your best-liked posts. All in a sweetly scored individual story devoted to your years (years!) with Facebook.

The idea was a 10th anniversary gift to Facebook users, and what made it so lovely was not just its unexpectedness (how it was kept as quiet as it was is beyond me!), but the fascinating trip it took each user down - children literally being "born," and those early moments revisited; people who have since passed away as you honored them or shared with them on your Facebook posts; places you visited; even those bittersweet moments - a boyfriend or girlfriend lost, a job you left, a town you no longer lived in - but shown as you experienced it in the moment.

I have to admit I find it hard to believe it's the same organization that feels the need to offer us dozens - is it really, as some have suggested, over 50 - gender options? Or is that true?

That's where the "I don't experience what you experience" part of Facebook comes in: I don't get more than three options when I try to change my gender option: Male, Female, Custom. I guess it's the "Custom" appellation that has the pundits commenting. Perhaps if the choice were "Other" nobody would be laughing, applauding, or frothing at the mouth. I read some many places that Facebook is now offering not three, not ten, but 58 choices, reportedly: Agender, Androgyne, Androgynous, Bigender, Cis, Cisgender, Cis Female, Cis Male, Cis Man, Cis Woman, Cisgender Female, Cisgender Male, Cisgender Man, Cisgender Woman, Female to Male, FTM, Gender Fluid, Gender Nonconforming, Gender Questioning, Gender Variant, Genderqueer, Intersex, Male to Female, MTF, Neither, Neutrois, Non-binary, Other, Pangender, Trans, Trans*, Trans Female, Trans* Female, Trans Male,Trans* Male, Trans Man, Trans* Man, Trans Person, Trans* Person, Trans Woman, Trans* Woman, Transfeminine, Transgender, Transgender Female, Transgender Male, Transgender Man, Transgender Person, Transgender Woman, Transmasculine, Transsexual, Transsexual Female, Transsexual Male, Transsexual Man, Transsexual Person, Transsexual Woman, Two-Spirit

Even when I entered "Custom," I did not get this list of choices. Perhaps there is more I have to do, or perhaps it's simply that Facebook already "knows" my gender identity. It's this contrast of choices, and the individuality of the experience, that keeps me fascinated by Facebook, as I am goggled by Google (well, I had to come up with an "g" word, also known as an "alliteration" - that's the best I could do).

There was something sweet and charming and delicate about the anniversary waltz Facebook did with us. There was something slightly smart-alec and even challenging about adding a "Custom" label to our choice of Gender. But that's Facebook.

And as I noted, we don't all have the same experience. Depending on whose stories we respond to, whose links we click on, whom we choose as "close" friends, we'll see posts that Facebook has decided - though some mysterious algorithm - we are most likely to want to see. Of course, we can adjust what we see by "defriending" and going to various people's pages to show more interest. But all in all, what we see on Facebook has a lot more to do with what Facebook's idea of who we are than perhaps our own.

In spite of the fact that Facebook is reportedly losing the young - high school and college kids - in droves - as far as I know there is no genuine replacement yet. Thus far, the "replacement" is "small format" options like Snapchat, Instagram, and other short post options - which fits the nature of posts for many weaned on Life Online - fast, frequent, and mostly in code (that is to say, you have to translate to understand what they're talking about). So what Facebook does will, at least for the time being, continue to have an impact on what we're thinking, and how we're thinking it.


12/13/2013 01:24 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

Of course you've read my articles praising Amazon before. First, for its innovative shopping cart which introduced an entirely new - and in my mind, superior - approach to non-bricks and mortar shopping.

Next, it was the wildly successful move from simply selling books to selling anything and everything that's even remotely shippable. And making it easy!

Then they add the comments and rating feature, which, though it has been scammed and abused by the product producers themselves (though usually you can spot a fake review!), has been very helpful to shoppers wanting to know whether the product is worth trying.

A huge innovation - and a major success, from my way of thinking - was Amazon Prime. At $80 a year, the service provides 2 day shipping on eligible products, plus movies and TV series streamed to your computer, phone, tablet, or smart TV. Many of them are newer and more popular than Netflix offerings, and the streaming experience itself, while not flawless, is definitely acceptable.

Amazon has always made the purchasing process itself simple with One-Click, but now they've partnered with Discover to enable you to easily spend your Bonus Points. Discover offers a bonus points program for using the card. If you're smart and disciplined, it can be a great way to get some cash back for all your purchases. I use it for just about everything, then pay the balance each month faithfully (as opposed to using a debit card). In return, I rack up cash back points. Like many people, I find the actual use of such points to be bothersome. Sometimes you're restricted to what the system provides - GM, for example, has a credit card that racks up points, but only to buy a new GM product. (Now, if they'd let you take your car to a GM service center and get an oil change or brake job, that would be another story!)

Amazon - wisely, in my view - allows Discover card users to spend their points by simply linking the appropriate card to your account. It then interacts with Discover to find out how many points you have, and allows you to use the points to pay for some or all of your purchase - or use none of them and still use your Discover card.

Not only is this a very useful service, but I keep wondering: If Amazon can a) think these great ideas up; b) implement them quickly; and c) make it all work quickly and seamlessly - maybe the government should have hired them to program the Affordable Care Act's website? But that's another article!


12/09/2013 02:33 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

I was griping about Snapchat and Lulu recently, the first a sort of sordid way of offering up instant naked photos that supposedly only last long enough for an, er, peep show, and the second a way for women to rate, or diss, the men in their social networks.

I thought we were scraping the bottom of the barrel, when along comes an app called "Down." Good word for it. Because just when you think you are at the bottom of the barrel, there is still further down you can dig.

Down is an app that allows you to hook up, no strings, no harm, no foul, no names, no nothing more than just that - a hook up. Oh, by the way, you can rate the people you hook up with, and recommend them to a "friend."

Down calls itself a social networking app, but the name of the company producing it - "Bang with Friends, Inc." kind of says it all. The functional description of the app is that it's the "anonymous simple, fun way to find friends who are down for the night."

So, you get the app, you enable it to scrape your Facebook or Twitter data, and you indicate which of your friends you'd like to get "down" with. If they're likewise app'd up, and likewise interested, you can arrange a "date." (Does this sound like a business arrangement to anyone else but me?) Better than that, you can search the friends of your friends. Double - or multiply exponentially - your chances for a "down" on Friday night.

But there's more! Or less, depending on whether you're looking up, or, yeah, down. You can - again, all with perfect anonymity - tell the fun, frolicsome stories of what you did with whom when. And where. And if you read a fun, funny, fabulous and probably fabricated tale of a delicious down, you can buzz it out to your network of other Downers.

Well, ok, maybe my age and self-respect are showing. But for me, this kind of thing really is just that - a downer. Anybody? Anybody?

And to think, just a scant 50 years ago it was enough to ruin a girl's reputation if she went parking.


11/21/2013 09:31 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

It has nothing to do with this column, but I can't help reflecting on it: there are things going on in the world today that even my favorite futurist novelists could never have dreamed up!

Take Lulu. Please.

Maybe they should have called it Women in a Snit or something. Whatever, it doesn't reflect the best in my fellow females.

Oh, I admit there have been times when the idea of venting my spleen on a bad boyfriend in public would have been appealing. I'm hopeful that I would never have actually done it. But the creators of Lulu decided it was a great idea: the free, female-friendly social networking app lets women anonymously review men who are their Facebook friends.

According to an article in The New York Times, "On Lulu, women can rate men in categories — ex-boyfriend, crush, together, hooked-up, friend or relative — with a multiple-choice quiz. Women, their gender verified by their Facebook logins, add pink hashtags to a man’s profile ranging from the good (#KinkyInTheRightWays) to the bad (#NeverSleepsOver) to the ugly (#PornEducated). The hashtags are used to calculate a score generated by Lulu, ranging from 1 to 10, that appears under the man’s profile picture. (The company’s spokeswoman declined to explain the ratings algorithm.) Men can add hashtags, which appear in blue, but these are not factored into their overall score."

To use this tool of revenge, download the app to your smart phone. Now, with the promise of anonymity, you can search for men in your Facebook friend list, and see how they rate, or deliver ratings yourself.

I wasn't surprised to find that most of the men I knew had no ratings - the app is really for young women in the high volume dating segment.

The designers of the app insist their purpose was as much friendly as fiendish, as they wanted to promote the good guys as well as trash the bad ones. Alexandra Chong, the founder, says the idea developed as a bunch of friends concluded, one drink-inspired brunchtime, that they needed a "Guygle," or a place they could go to find out if the guy they were dating was worth the time.

Fortunately for men, some of whom have been appalled at comments left about them (let's face it, when you're good and mad at someone, if you can call them 50 times on re-dial, you can load them up with 50 negative comments, too), they can request to have their profiles removed from the app.

One good thing I can say about it is - if I ever do get that annoyed with a male friend, I can always threaten to "Lulu" him!


10/21/2013 07:28 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

Google Glass, Microsoft Kinect, Google's Flutter for Mac - are we really ready to merge with our machines?

I know that this is the big deal, the predicted "emerging algorith," the next major predicted step in computing - but I either I'm too old to adapt (is that possible?) or that kind of adapting just isn't humanly possible. Somehow, I can't picture it.

It is true, if someone had predicted 25 years ago that I'd carry a little device with me (a Tricorder, anyone?) that contained most of my life in digital form, and without which I felt positively naked - worse, I felt panicked - I would have found it hard to believe. But I believe there is a difference between an ATM Machine and The Clapper.

Let me explain that one a little. ATM machines are an innovation I would fight to maintain, and which have significantly changed my life and the way I conduct it. I don't have to worry about getting to the bank before it closes; I don't have to worry about being near a store for which I have a check cashing card. ATM machines are everywhere, easy to operate, and relatively inexpensive.

The Clapper, that famous "lights on, lights off" device that allowed you to control, by the sound of clapping, the lights (or other devices in a given room) plugged in to The Clapper.

The problem is, it's just not that hard to turn on lights. One time I might want all my lights on, another time I might want just a few, or one. It's not specific enough. It demands a new habit that doesn't make my life so much easier that I adopt it happily and readily. The time I save isn't sufficient reward for the retraining.

So my personal jury is still out on whether items like those I mentioned - Google Glass, Kinect, and Flutter - are going to be adopted as enthusiastically as developers think.

Before I go into the details of each, let me provide another example of a technology that, for all its promise, didn't really take off: "layers," or "enhanced reality." It sounded pretty cool: point your smart phone at an area of a city, for example, and find a restaurant, or a house for sale, or other information - which way to the beach? The problem was, in my view, there were alternatives that were easy to use, didn't require much in the way of learning, and had an obvious connection with the way we were used to doing things, such as the App "Around Me," that did basically the same thing by only slightly modifying what we were already used to doing (such as, looking up the location of a restaurant in a phone book, or online) but providing the convenience of "any time, anywhere," and virtual updates, that the old modality couldn't provide. Or here's another - "Bump." That was going to be a Big Thing because all you had to do was have the app turned on and then bump knuckles with another person also using the app and you would exchange contact information. Again, my guess is that this was just too far away from what we were used to doing, and not a natural enough evolution of habit, to be easily adopted.

So, let's back up and take a closer look at each of those three technologies I named at the beginning of the article.

Google Glass: it's essentially a smart headset that will perform most of the functions of your smart phone, but without you having to navigate Apps using your hands. You navigate via voice and movement. So, you can take pictures or video and post them or share them; you can make notes; you can translate to another language; you can look up information or make a phone call. Again, as noted, essentially all those things that we're doing now using our smart phones, but without the challenge of finding the phone and finding the app. Here's my problem with this one: it's just not that difficult to use the phone. Most of us have adapted to the phone-as-extension-of-self pretty easily, and while yes, if you drop the phone into a purse or on the floor of a car while traveling you can face the possibility of missing a perfect photo, for the most part, I haven't been so bothered by lost opportunity in connection with my phone that I'd do just about anything to fix the problem. In other words, using my phone as is simply isn't really much of a problem. The Siri - or truly "smart" voice control of my phone - has solved what small problems I did have, such as a long text session, with relative ease and very little adaptation of my current behavior.

Wearing a headset, and taking the time and effort to experience a new learning curve, is more of a leap. Now, if I could solve the problem of dropped calls by simply wearing the headset? You can bet I would have one in the proverbial New York minute (how long is that, by the way?). That is to say, dropped calls are such an annoyance, and more or less a daily occurrence, so in fact there is a problem to be solved there that I would be willing to go to some lengths to solve. Not so much the onerous chore of pointing my phone at a cute kid and enabling the Camera app.

Microsoft's Kinect, and Google's Flutter, are variations on a theme, and are both gesture replacement technology for the things that we now do with a mouse or keyboard.

Keyboard commands were an easy step from mouse control to a simpler, easier, less annoying way to accomplish a task: to copy and paste on a Windows keyboard, I simply hit Control-C, then Control-V, first selecting the item to be copied, then selecting the location to place the copied item. Simple. Of course, so is doing the same chore with a mouse using the right mouse button.

With gesture controls, I have to learn a way of engaging with a device - in the case of Flutter, it's basically the camera on your computer or Smart TV or whatever - and then using hand gestures and vocal cues to perform tasks. Now, I suppose I can see the usefulness of that sort of thing for a once-and-done operation, such as "Call Susie Jones." Or "Turn on DVR, Play back Walking Dead." But to try to accomplish real work by standing in front of a camera and performing a choreographed series of gestures is too big of a leap from the system already in place in our habitual behaviors.

Here's another f'rinstance: I thought I was going to love "Dance, Dance Revolution." The idea was brilliant: you attach a mat to a port on your DVD player along with the appropriate program, turn it on, then follow the moves of a dance-workout routine by hitting the right spots on the map with your feet. In fact, I did enjoy it - and the console models at Game Centers have been very popular. But the truth is that it's a pain in the neck to set up. It's much easier to simply pop a DVD in and follow an instructor who's leading you through a dance routine. The novelty isn't sufficient for the demand of retraining.

Yes, as I watch little kids engage with iPads and smart phones, and see how quickly they figure out pinching and swiping and other basic interactions, I do believe that kids who grow up using this type of "stand and swipe" behavior will most likely find it second nature. I'm less sanguine about it being a logical "next" step in the evolution of human-computer-interface technology.


10/08/2013 06:47 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

The Internet is measured in seconds, not years, not months, not even minutes.

Two years ago, nobody talked about "sexting." A politician with an appropriately inappropriate name made it a household word.

A year ago, not very many people were referring to "selfies." Now, we're all guilty of taking them. Shamelessly, evidently.

But both of these, and many other things we do every day on the Internet, silly stupid Facebook posts, or Tweets we wish we'd never twittered, come with a problem. There's a record of them. They can be searched. Whether it's your boyfriend, wife, political opponent, the inquisitive press, or even a stalker (another term that has taken on new meaning and prominence in the world today), if you said it online, it can be retrieved, often to your shame and detriment.

Along comes Snapchat, a mobile app that, according to one reviewer, "theoretically allows user to send whatever silly or ugly or dirty picture they want, to whomever they want and never have it come back to haunt them, to leave no digital trace."

As the reviewer points out, it's really a false promise, as screen captures and other means can keep a record of what's been sent, but as usual, what's new, different and cool has been, well, "snapped" up by the ever more self-important public. Snapchat users are sending more than 350 million images to one another every day.

“What," writes Snapchat staff blogger Nathan Jurgenson, "would the various socialmedia sites look like if ephemerality was the default and permanence, at most, an option?”

But if you enter “Snapchat," the app's autocomplete is "me naughty pics.”

So, ok, it's pretty clear that Snapchat was either developed specifically for sending so-called "sexts" or it was quickly adopted for that purpose. While it should be understood that anything can be stored if the recipient is nimble with technology, Snapchat does its best to prevent that, or at least notify you when a screen shot has been taken of something you text using the app. So you know when you're potentially going to be humiliated. And you can set the duration of your text to as little as one second, no doubt well within the safety limits of someone's capturing an image.

Ironically, though, Snapchat images have been used in court as proof that an unwanted image was indeed sent via the app. So keep that in mind when you're feeling frisky or funny and get the urge to snap. Just remember the old saying, if you can't show it to your mom, you probably don't want to make a record of it!


09/25/2013 04:26 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

I upgraded my iPhone's IOS the other day. Guess I'd been out of the tech conversation loop, as I was expecting just another behind-the-scenes upgrade, though I should have been suspicious when the install took so long. When it finally rebooted I realized I must have fallen asleep, and Rip Van Winkle-like, awoke 20 years later to find myself in a new visual world.

Now, while I haven't gone from Windows 7 to Windows 8 (when it comes to operating systems, I am a late adopter. You wouldn't want to be the first to have Vista, now would you?). I have seen it. And frankly, I've seen enough of it to be unimpressed with the graphics. Still, that's generally not enough to keep me from making a change if the overall performance of the technology is superior to a previous version.

But with Windows 8, it seems that a huge part of the change is the graphics, or maybe better put, it's the integration of the graphics into the whole user experience. Borrowing shamelessly from Apple's push, pull, pinch, slide approach to interacting with its iPad and iPhone, Windows 8 has more or less become a touch-interface. I'm not totally sure what I think of that, given that a lot of what I do is either typing or graphic work, neither of which work out really well without some real feedback, it's the old "feel of the pencil" or "response of the keyboard" that helps a writer or an artist with tasks. Turn it all into sliding and it becomes a little too game like for me, or am I just showing my age?

While Windows 8 may have borrowed a lot of the gesturing from Apple, it's big, flat, primary color graphics belongs to Windows 8 alone, except that now it's everywhere I look!

Back to my iPhone upgrade story: When my phone rebooted, I was in Windows 8 land. Gone were the puffy little text balloons, missing was the 3D marshmallowy feel of everything Mac. The fonts are now even skinny and... LARGE. Boxes dominate. Things are hiding in expand-collapse views rather than the traditional Mac-ish sliders. Even the sounds are new and different!

But there's more. It so happened that I was watching a television commercial later that evening, something I don't do often if I can help it, and I realized that graphically speaking, the world has adopted Windows 8. All the graphics on the ads are big and flat and bright. I feel a bit as though I'm in kindergarten. And it gets...worse.

Then I was doing my "second screen" thing, that is to say, looking at my iPad while watching TV and stumbled across a men's fashion site. Ye gods. The men are dressing like Windows 8! Bright, tight clothing that looks as if it were designed for the guys kids and cut to suit someone way smaller! Red pants, jackets with a single button *this* close to popping as the fabric strains across even a flat tummy, shoes that appear as though a kid did get turned loose with a magic marker on great-grandpa's white bucks.

As much as I was stunned by the intensity of the change, wasn't it just this spring and summer when the world was full of swirls and soft, earthy colors and butterflies, was the suddenness of it all. While I say it was this spring and summer, I'd swear it was just last week when the design world had us on a completely different path. Or maybe I did go to sleep for if not twenty years, then at least twenty weeks!

At any rate, I'm reasonably sure it's the fault of Windows 8. And I can still remember DOS.


08/30/2013 02:27 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

The notion of "crowdfunding" is actually as old as, well, as old as the early days of shipping ventures, when individuals would buy into a ship's fortunes as it sailed off to bring back valuable cargo (we're talking as early as the 1600s, the East India Company [1700s] that went off in search of cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpeter, tea and opium) and other joint ventures into which people would pour their money, hoping that their "ship would come in."

The aim of crowdfunding isn't necessarily to "get rich." It's to support an effort you believe has merit, for whatever reason.

Not too long ago, a few websites sprang up that allowed groups and individuals to post requests for funding for projects. They might be in the arts, the humanities, they might be humanitarian. It might be to make a video for a new CD - or the CD itself - for an aspiring band. It might be the money for a program for students, or a TV pilot. Whatever the objective, if it met the site's criteria, and it had merit, it was up for grabs for the public to support.

Two of the more well-known are Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but by 2012, there were at least 450 crowdfunding platforms. You can search on such platforms for projects that meet your criteria, such as music, drama, art, civic activities, and so on. Then, you can contribute whatever meets your budget and your interests.

An added benefit of crowdfunding to the creator is exposure. People who are interested in funding this way are also likely to be connected socially on the Internet, and will share this information with friends who share it with friends, and you know how that story goes. The downside is that there is the "indie" stigma that is still (for however long, my personal opinion is its days are numbered) attached to DIY products, programs, and efforts. If you can't get VC - venture capital - can you possibly be really any good? If you can't qualify for a government grant, can your program really be of any benefit to the greater public?

For my money, all irony intended (is that really irony? I'm told Americans don't "get" irony), crowdfunding is the ideal way for people to vote with their pocketbooks. They're going directly to the source, rather than hearing it from an analyst, or believing a pundit. They can sample a product offering, listen to some music, look at some artwork or read a prospectus. If they like it, they support it. It's that simple, that direct, that honest.

True, there are so many out there it can be difficult to get attention, but that, of course, is where social media comes in. You "broadcast" the story to like-minded people, and together, you can make things happen. Kickstart them, as it were.

So what are you waiting for? Find something you believe in, and kick it!


08/12/2013 03:12 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

Who's writing - and shooting - the news these days?

You are!

NBC News has recently acquired both a product, and its brainchild, with the addition and implementation of something called "Stringwire."

Based on the notion that Twitter is first and foremost with most breaking action - and I can attest to this, having gotten accurate reports of the effects of a Canadian earthquake a couple of summers ago from Twitter, not from the news, or even the U.S. Geological department - Stringwire monitors Tweets from breaking news, and then instructs Twitterers to click on a special NBC link and keep tweeting and shooting.

Stringwire then uses this on-the-scene information to keep the news coming as news crews rush to the scene of the action for more professional coverage.

Imagine, if you will, the rescue of that young lady kidnapped and in the woods in Idaho if her horse-back rescuers had not only noted the suspicious looking situation, but had actually tweeted and video recorded the situation as it was happening. We'd have all been witness to what happened, as it was happening.

NBC News also promises to do its best to vet this information so that the "heat of battle" won't distort the story.

The technology is the brainchild of recent NYU grad Philip Groman, who has become a "Product Lead" at NBC News, which is evidently now churning out tech products along with news stories.

Stay tuned!


07/25/2013 01:44 PM Posted By: Nancy Roberts, Computing Columnist

I am a big fan of an online offering called Coursera, an educational technology company that offers MOOCs, or massive open online courses. It was founded by two Stanford University computer science professors, and the idea was to have Coursera work with universities to make some of their course offerings available online. Free. Why?

Because like most things, the intent was never to have to stay free. The free part was to get you hooked on taking courses online, on your schedule, your time - getting university level courses, potentially credit, and often certification, and then gradually start offering some of the more popular courses for a fee, particularly if certification or some other benefit came with it.

The schools that are involved are no bottom feeders, either: Duke, Emory, University of Pennsylvania, UC, and many more, and courses ranging from all manner of computer science offerings to audio production, humanities, math, and the arts.

The other interesting thing about Coursera is that, contrary to what you might expect, the workload is not minimal, and the assignments can be rigorous. You had better be prepared for more than just the 20 minute or so daily lecture once your six week course begins. While your will often be evaluated by peers on assignments - there are, after all, potentially tens of thousands of students taking a particular course at any given time - the assignments can be challenging, and I found to my chagrin in a computer science course I took, very time consuming.

iTunes also has a free offering that has merit for those of us who love to learn: free lectures at iTunes U. Next time you sync up your phone or iPod, go look for iTunes U, or better yet, do a Google search, and you'll turn up just about every school you've ever heard of across the planet offering courses. Lectures and many courses are free - and if you're an instructor, you might be interested in the app that allows you to design a course to be offered to students around the globe in your field of expertise. Somehow, somewhere, I just know Steve Jobs is smiling about this one.


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