The election again

As the dust settles, Labour is embarked on one of its usual tugs-of-war, between the left and the right. It’s as old as Labour. Gaitskell vs Bevan. Benn vs. Healy.

Blair-Brown was the exception: a clash of personalities, not policies.

Milliband-Milliband.

But it is absolutely and crushingly irrelevant to the problem at hand.

Labour didn’t lose because it picked the wrong point on the political spectrum. Too Left? Too Right?No, just too dull. It lost partly because it didn’t inspire anyone – its campaign was based on waiting for the Conservatives to screw up.

But mainly, it lost because of the Lib Dems.

And the Nats.

Let’s deal with the Nats first. The Nats won because of the independence referendum. It created a momentum. The momentum didn’t stop with the referendum. There are thousands of disappointed activists, many of them young – the 45% – and the 45% won the election for the Nats. 45% loses a referendum but it’s a landslide in a general election.

Labour mostly lost because of the LibDems. Lots of LibDem voters either didn’t vote, or voted Labour. But they were in LibDem-Tory marginals. So as the LibDem vote collapsed, the Tories took over. The Tories didn’t increase their vote share by much over 2010. It’s just that they were by far the largest beneficiaries of the collapse of the LibDem vote. Disillusioned lib-dems didn’t switch to the Tories, they switched off. Even if Labour had targetted them, it is unlikely to have made much difference to the outcome.

I hope Labour gets some passion for real politics back. I am sure it would win with a charismatic leader on the left or on the right; I suspect its new leader will be Mr Umunna and that despite his being another shiny hollow thing he will win in 2020. Against BoJo.

Those letters….

Are not really a transparency issue.

It did take the Freedom of Information Act to get them published.

The issue is not that they were secret, but that they were replied to. The right government policy is to return such missives unopened.

What went wrong?

To say I am disappointed is an understatement.  The worst government I have ever lived under has just been replaced by one containing all its pathological elements and none of its potentially moderating influences.  I supported the Green Party, not Labour, and Labour will blame people like me for their loss. There’ll be time enough for analysis, to see if the Green vote did actually decide any marginals – but I think that’s carping. I’m not going to apologise for my vote: I’m in a safe Labour seat, and I voted Green because, bankers or bedroom tax, the most critical issue facing the country and the world is climate change. I’ve got a gripe with my party that they didn’t put that issue front and centre of everything in the campaign, but this post is about Labour, not the Green Party.

Personality

The plain fact is that Labour never looked like winners, however much those of us on the anti-Tory side hoped they might be.  I still think that Ed Miliband would be a better PM than Cameron  – he could hardly be worse – but he has never seemed prime ministerial, whatever that means. In the media-obsessed world we live in, Miliband always seemed a little geeky – his offensive nickname “Beaker” – and decent intelligent human though he is, I don’t think he was the right person to lead Labour. He lacks the necessary charisma. I would have liked Alan Johnson or perhaps Andy Burnham.  I wish this wasn’t an issue, but I’m afraid it is, because the  media says it is.

Policies and politics.

I can’t fault most of Labour’s policies on their own, but the whole package was just a bit meh.  I think the bigger problem is the political narrative, which affects the Left globally. “Socialism” is still a toxic word. Neo-liberalism has failed on the right, but there isn’t a coherent political narrative for the left to replace it.  There’s no shortage of ideas, particularly in economics. Piketty, Stiglitz and even Krugman have been widely read and trenchantly critical of the neoliberal consensus but as yet translating their ideas into policies seems to elude the parties of the left.  Labour needed to be much more critical of the banks and bankers and to propose radical banking and monetary reform.  Unfortunately, the two-Eds leadership was heavily implicated in Brown mismanagement of this issue and can’t really be trusted to tackle it head on, as it needs to be.

It comes down to a key problem. Labour threw out its soul with the Clause IV bathwater; Blair replaced idealism with the hollow branding of New Labour.  Now that New Labour has gone, the party  needs to rebrand the ideals that most of its members hold into something of value.

Factionalism

Labour is still deeply divided. I don’t think this is an issue now, but it will be.  Did they fail because they were too left or too right? This failure to agree on a political compass is one of the reasons the party finds it so difficult to express a coherent narrative about its purpose.

Management and activism

The PLP still consists mostly of the former spadocracy, career politicians who joined the party when its star was burning bright in the firmament.  There isn’t the passion from the roots for the Labour project: compare it with the SNP, which has a vast number of passionate grass-roots members whose activism was kindled in the indyref.  Unless Labour can rekindle this sort of grass-roots passion – and many in Labour have tried – I’m personally doubtful whether the party has much of a future.  However, there is nothing like a  Tory government on a destructive rampage to fire up youthful protest – so perhaps there is a silver lining for Labour in the present catastrophe.

Saving the drownded

This post from the Daily Mash gets it about right.  Letting people drown as they try to escape from one or other countries we’ve managed to mess up by misjudged interventions is simply not great foreign policy.

So here’s what we should be doing. By the way, it will cost a little money.

First, we make sure that there’s an EU mission in every country in the world. Even relatively rich countries like France and Britain can’t afford to keep missions in every country, but a little co-ordination between member states would make sure that at least one member state had diplomatic representation in every country. And that mission has to be authorised to take a small but non-zero number of EU migrants every year – thus providing a legitimate way for some people to migrate to the EU.

Second, we make those missions much more outspoken on human rights.  Of the people turning up on the shores of Libya for the dangerous Med crossing, many are from countries in trouble – like Syria and Somalia. But it’s surprising how often Eritrea comes up. Eritrea’s government is currently one of the most brutal.  We need to help Eritrea sort its own governance out so that it doesn’t become another Somalia or South Sudan.

Third, we intercept the boats coming from Libya and process the migrants. The majority must be sent back to their country of origin, before they land in the EU.  If the usual outcome of paying a people-smuggler is that you end up back where you started, the trade will stop being so lucrative.

Fourth, we increase and refocus overseas aid. If we focus our aid spending on the countries from where there’s the greatest migration pressure, we can reduce the economic pressure to migrate.

Fifth, we refocus foreign policy. The first objective of all foreign policy must be to reduce conflict.

Inheritance Tax

As someone who considers this fading ConDem government to have been the worst under which I have ever lived, I am quite gratified by their current car-crash of an election campaign.  I think a left-leaning coalition would be the best outcome of this election.

But let me just unpick the bones from the latest inheritance tax announcement.  First, a disclaimer. I – or my heirs – are likely to benefit from it. I own a home that’s within the value limits, between £650,000 and £1,000,000.  But it’s still a godawful idea.

Ben Goldacre has put forward here six reasons why all tax is annoying but inheritance tax is probably the least bad of all of them. He’s right on all six counts.  Here are his points:

  1. We’ve lived through an era of appalling growth in income and asset inequality. Locking that in for a 2nd generation is very bad news.
  2.  Growth in house value is generously excluded from capital gains because you need to live in it. When you’re dead, that excuse is gone.
  3. Housing wealth derives from the value of the land, which rises because of the actions of everyone in the country, not you.
  4. Caring for the old is very costly. The old didn’t foresee this, and didn’t pay tax to fund it. Housing wealth will do nicely.
  5. A country where you get ahead best by luck and inheritance, rather than hard work, is a lazy unfair country that will fail
  6. I totally get the primordial desire to do your best for your kids, but if your plan is to do that with banknotes, you’re doing it wrong.

There are more.

There’s a bit of a housing shortage on at the moment. One reason for this is that people like me have bought all the houses; another is that there are more of us, we’re living longer and in smaller households.  Old people living on in the family home isn’t a very good way of using the housing stock. A house that’s good for bringing up children in isn’t, on the whole, very good for growing old in.  Many people my age are dealing with elderly parents, and the ones who have the least problem are the ones that got their parents out of the family home and into sheltered housing of one form or another.  That releases a family home for another family. It makes providing social care much easier. It makes the inevitable old-person falls less dangerous. It reduces pressures on the NHS – it’s much more practical to discharge a patient after an inevitable fall back into a safe sheltered house than into an impractical family house.  Now, there’s yet another reason not to move – you’ll lose Mr Cameron’s IHT breaks.

It’s bad enough that we’re a land of housing haves  – my generation, mostly – and have-nots. Mostly divided by age – people over 40 mostly have homes, people under 40 are mostly Generation Rent. When we die, our homes will come back on the market. But Mr Cameron will make sure that most of them go by inheritance. There will still be housing haves and have-nots, but divided less by age than by how lucky you were with your inheritance. It’s a massive step backward.

Luckily, it seems that the commentariat has come out against Cameron on this. It’s a policy that will benefit a very few, pretty rich people – like most Conservative policies – and let’s hope that voters see this next month.

Not answering the question: How will you pay for it?

A question that floored poor Natalie Bennett on LBC the other day is one to which no credible politician can ever give a straightforward answer.  Natalie took “not answering the question” to another level in that she just clammed up, whereas most of the others would have had a preprepared spiel of soundbites (that don’t answer the question) ready to fill the gaps in the airwaves.  And there are those who love her for that, although I am not one of them. In my view she missed a crucial opportunity to put across some much more important points about Green Party policy on the economy and on climate change.

The fact is the economy is still in deficit. That means that the Government is already spending more than it is taking in tax. It has been doing so since the early 2000s (well before the financial crash of 2007/8). The last time debt fell as a proportion of GDP was 2003.  If the normal household rules of prudent expenditure applied to governments (they don’t, by the way), none of the promises being made by politicians can be afforded.

The true answer:

“The Government can pay for anything if it really wants to. There will, however, be consequences”.

The consequences depend mostly on what you spend the money on.

The authorities, including the Bank of England which despite its nominal independence is owned by and ultimately responsible to the Government, have spent a great deal of money on propping up the financial system since 2008.  They magicked the money from thin air, because the consequences of not doing so might well have been worse.  £325bn of quantitative easing has boosted the wealth of the richest half of the population by £600bn, and done nothing for the bottom half. Mostly by inflating asset prices, particularly property.

Spending money on social housing has different consequences. It creates  assets, owned by the public, that earn an income in the form of rent – so although the government debt goes up, it is balanced by assets on the other side of the balance sheet. Unlike private businesses, government doesn’t record the value of the assets it holds. (It should. It would make the debt look a lot less scary).  A lot of that rent will be housing benefit. People already in private rented housing on housing benefit will move into more secure social housing. Private landlords, who have been doing very well out of their tenants’ housing benefit  will lose out – the overall result will be more property available on the market, so that rents and house-prices will fall, or rise less quickly.  Some of them will get out of the game, and put their money somewhere else – maybe investing in startups and other productive enterprises. Now that would be a good thing. Paying housing benefit to public-sector social landlords is better for the deficit than paying it to private-sector landlords – the public gets a lot more of it back.

Social housing changes the way money is transferred to the private sector. Instead of going as rent to private landlords, for which the public gets nothing in return, it goes as construction costs and wages to builders and in return the public gets lots of good quality housing. It  boosts local economies – wages get spent locally, in cafes, pubs, shops. The simple act of building social housing has a redistributive effect and reduces inequality – it’s trickle-down that works.  Private sector rent goes to pay off buy-to-let mortgages, back to the banks and concentrates wealth at the top, where trickle-down doesn’t work.

Public sector social housing built to modern green standards, with proper insulation so no heating is needed will push up demand for the skills needed to build efficient homes. Those skills will be transferred to the private sector as well – particularly if Government also enforces tougher regulations on home insulation.

So if building lots of social housing is so good, how come it’s not in everyone’s manifesto?  Look at the losers: private-sector landlords and the banks.  That explains the Tories; and the fact is that the others do all plan to build more, it’s just that the Greens plan to build the most.

Oborne, honour and HSBC

The wires and waves are full of the story of Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Daily Telegraph.

I admire his integrity; he will find work, but whether he ever again finds such work is moot: not because he will not be in demand, but because the economics of news and comment is dramatically changing. That change is part of the problem with the Telegraph.

Oborne’s tremendous departing salvo is published on Open Democracy; if you haven’t read it, do so.  Paraphrasing, it is clear that he  regrets the passing of integrity in news journalism and exposes particularly egregious changes under the current management. Regrettable though they are, I think these changes are inevitable. The economics of online are different. Today, evidence of the Telegraph’s fall is clear to see; that its magnificent coverage of the MPs expenses was its swansong. The Times fell decades ago. The Mail has succeeded online only by peddling as click-bait soft porn and celebrity tittle-tattle.  The BBC lost its edge after the Hutton report; it has not since dared challenge government policy outside the Radio Four evening comedy slot. The Guardian is struggling, hoping that its membership scheme will help maintain its independence – pursuing a business model not unlike that adopted by Open Democracy.

But the Oborne story is important too in that it reveals even more of the disgraceful behaviour running through what was once a highly respected bank.

I suspect that certain residents of the island of Brecqhou have been making use of HSBC’s offshore banking services, provided on an island mere minutes by helicopter from their home, the reporting of which had been pulled from the Telegraph in 2012 and which started the train of events leading to Oborne’s resignation.  Of course I have no evidence; it is mere conjecture. And I am quite sure that nothing that the said islanders have been doing is in any way unlawful. After all they are quite rich enough to be able to afford the lawyers and advisers whose deft touch is enough to turn evasion into avoidance.  That is  in addition to the clear and disgraceful breach of editorial ethics over the paper’s reporting of HSBC.

The values that Oborne cherishes have been eroded at every level of the British establishment.  In the management of banks, in the administration of government departments and major companies, and particularly in the City of London. It is futile to try to repair the damage; the world has moved on – but there is an alternative. That alternative is transparency. That means that we should be able to see how the different trusts and companies that link the Telegraph to the Barclays and their other business interests are operated, where and how the money flows, and what tax is paid on it.

Syria, Ukraine and the abject failure of Western diplomacy

Syria is obviously a god-awful mess, despite the surreal nature of this morning’s interview between President Assad and Jeremy Bowen.  Meanwhile, President Obama is considering sending more weapons to the Eastern Ukraine, an area already devastated by civil war.

No sane person can look on these two places and think that anyone in power can have done the right thing. Both are symptoms of the abject failure of Western diplomacy.

Politicians, obviously, must take some of the blame. After all, we elected them and the buck stops there. But in foreign policy far more than domestic or economic policy their actions are controlled by an establishment, whether in the Foreign Office or the State Department. The late Robin Cook came to office as Foreign Secretary determined to implement an “ethical foreign policy”; an idea which met such determined opposition from the mandarins (and our allies) that he was forced to abandon it even before the Iraq war.  It is almost as if there is acceptance that foreign policy must be unethical.  Now I am not a foreign office insider, merely an interested observer, so my diagnosis is based on what I see and what I conclude rather than what I know.  I am putting forward a conjecture, which may or may not be correct,  to  explain this abject failure. It fits such of the facts as I am – we are –  allowed to see; and I should not be surprised if diplomatic insiders were to say, ah, yes, but if you knew what we knew but can’t tell you… Sorry, what was that about transparency?

It seems to me that Western diplomacy is still stuck in a Cold War mindset, where the first approach to any issue is to ask, “whose side are we on?”, or more specifically, “where do our interests lie?”.   It is not, “how can we prevent this conflict from worsening”, but it should be. Our interests are always in reducing or preventing conflict, and this will usually mean not taking sides. Yet in both Syria and Ukraine, the first thing we did was to take sides.  The analysis seems to be – “here there is conflict or potential conflict. One side will win. Which should it be for the best protection of our interests?”, and that is essentially a faulty analysis.  Perhaps it is even, “here there is conflict, our enemies have taken sides, so let’s do what we can to draw them in and bog them down”. I really hope that this sort of analysis doesn’t take place anywhere in any department paid for by my taxes, but I cannot be certain. Nevertheless, it is clear that “take sides first” does drive most Western foreign policy; and it should be equally clear in both Syria and Ukraine that it has been counterproductive. It has not worked. 

Instead, our approach should be, “let’s prevent this conflict”.  In fact, “let’s prevent this conflict even if it helps our enemies’ friends and an unpleasant tyrant stays in power”.  That’s difficult, but you have to think, if you were a Syrian person, would you rather still be living in a peaceful Syria under Assad’s tyranny, than in today’s devastated country or in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Turkey?  Our failure in Syria is because we took sides against Assad. In doing so, we prevented any of the various peace processes from taking place, because we – and our allies in the Syrian opposition – put an impossible precondition on the talks: Assad must Go.  It’s no use spinning it that the Russians put their precondition on too (“Assad must stay”) – the fact is, both sides had preconditions. And ours was more demanding.  Peace talks are always better than no peace talks. Peace talks without preconditions are better than no peace talks. Peace talks with our preferred preconditions – dream on.

Syria is a very complex situation. We got it badly wrong by taking sides. Assad is a tyrant, but he is a secular Baathist tyrant. His regime isn’t universally-unpopular. Syria’s Alawite,  Christian. Druze and Shia minorities still support it. The Sunni majority didn’t, and the opposition was backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  Both of these are “on our side” – oil-rich Sunni tyrannies – while Iran and Russia backed Assad.  And from the mess has emerged Daesh, our enemy’s enemy.  Qatar and Saudi are players in a wider regional game against Iran, and neither of them has ever had any interest in creating a legitimate democratic government in Syria.  Democracy is anathema to both of them.  Political support for “the moderate Syrian opposition” was orchestrated in Washington, almost certainly funded by money from these tyrannies (Qatar and Saudi). But because we took sides, because we were too weak to say to this so-called moderate Syrian opposition, “Drop your precondition to peace talks or we will drop you”. Because we put taking sides before preventing conflict.

The same mistakes are being played out in Ukraine. Here, the issue is simpler; it’s Western triumphalism over Russia. The bear is wounded, so we poke it with a stick.  Our urge to take sides – particularly against our old enemy – has once again trumped the need for conflict prevention. If you lived in Eastern Ukraine, would you rather live in a semi-autonomous Russian enclave than undergo years of civil war? None of the above is not an option.  The Kiev government, which we so triumphally supported, is guilty of prolonging the war, of wanting absolute victory over the separatists.  We should, instead, be pushing for a plebiscite in Eastern Ukraine, as we should have done in Crimea.  Given a transparent, free plebiscite, the most likely outcome would have been a majority for autonomy within an independent Ukraine – capital Kiev, not Moscow. (the Crimean outcome would probably have been for reversion to Russia….) Democracy means self-determination, and self-determination is more important than arbitrary boundaries drawn on a map. The border between Ukraine and Russia   has no historic significance, it was – like the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine by a stroke  Krushchev’s pen – essentially decided by Soviet bureaucracy.  Territorial integrity is nothing more than a useful notion, it cannot be absolute and must be trumped by self-determination in a democratic society.  (Small-c conservatives in Madrid and London need to understand this too in respect of Catalunya and Scotland)..

There is, probably, still, just a window of opportunity to prevent all-out war in Ukraine. The opportunity to save Syria has, I fear, been lost to Daesh. But we will only prevent that war by stopping taking sides, and President Obama’s plan to supply Kiev with weapons is not going to help.  Conflict prevention must always be the primary goal of diplomacy, because conflict is always worse than the alternative.

Almost always. I don’t like absolutes.  But in Syria and Ukraine, the conflict was avoidable. We just messed up, at the cost of millions of lives.

Open-Book Accounting (and Apple…)

I have been ranting and wittering on about open-book accounting for years.

Let me explain again.

Since, today, almost all accounting systems are computerised, and since almost all computers are capable of being connected to the Internet, there is no technical reason why every ledger, every account, even every invoice in every Government department and every public and private company should not be made world-readable. We wouldn’t need to wait for today’s announcement to discover Apple’s extraordinary sales in the last quarter: a BingBot or GoogleBot would have been scouring their books and we’d have known, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute how well they were doing.

Now I haven’t done the analysis, but I bet there was a noticeable upwards movement in Apple’s share price before the announcement – although, to be fair? to Apple, they do run a pretty tight ship when it comes to keeping information inside.  But if they did keep their accounts open, then there wouldn’t be sudden jumps in the share price. There would be no such thing as insider information. Traders and investors would always know, in real time, exactly how well they were doing, and could price accordingly. It would reduce the opportunity for risky but profitable stock-punting: true transparency always increases competition, and competition always decreases profits.

But open-book accounting isn’t just about opening everything up; it turns out it’s rather more complicated.

There are two sides to every transaction.  On the one side, a corporation or a state – an entity about which we as shareholders or citizens should HAVE THE RIGHT to know everything; on the other, often – an individual private citizen. And neither we, nor the state, have the right to know anything about what our fellow citizens do with their lives.  Our goal (well, my goal as a Transparency Extremist, and it should be yours too) is  Public Transparency, Private Privacy.  

The paradox of openness: better access control

If open-book accounting is to be adopted, then  accounting systems need to 
implement better access control, in order to keep the private bits private.

For the last few years, in my spare time as an amateur computer programmer, I’ve been developing computer code that will implement the sort of granular access control needed for open-book accounting. I’m now putting it together, first as a book-keeping system for small businesses who need to keep their team – including mentors and investors – informed in real-time.

I’m now at the stage where I need to assemble a team to help me take it further, faster.

You can find out more by looking at this presentation:  and by following my tech persona @platosys on Twitter.

What to do about Saudi Arabia

The death of King Abdullah is sad because every death is sad. King Salman is a chip off the old block; no change is to be expected.

On Twitter, I’ve often pointed to this excellent piece by Karen Armstrong. She explains how the Saud family and their tribal rivals have exploited and distorted the ascetic doctrines of Al Wahhabb to create today’s disgusting exemplars in Daesh and the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. The latter is no more legitimate a state than so-called IS – neither Islamic nor a state.

One group is our enemy, the other our “ally”. Both are carrying out acts of the most barbarous cruelty. Both have access to oil; one controls and defiles the Holy Cities of Islam – the most recently egregious case being the public beheading of a woman in Mecca.

It seems, however, that the world is finally finding this hypocrisy nauseous. Louise Mensch this evening had a magnificent anti-Saudi rant on Radio 4 in which she quite rightly pointed out to poor Kim Howells, still trying to defend the indefensible, that ISIS/Daesh are really no worse than the al Saud family racket. Both utterly vile.

The al-Saud family is in an unholy alliance with the clerical establishment which in return for its exclusive control of doctrine is afforded unlimited power in the peninsula. They betray the ummah; exploiting Muslim Bengali workers who build the monstrosities that pass for modernism.

Even Kim Howells agrees that the Saudi regime is barbarous. But he offers only the argument that they are the least bad, most stable of a bad bunch. The Middle East is highly unstable, not made any better by our various interventions and betrayals (from Sykes-Picot onwards). Because they’re a bunch of Arab hotheads? The region has traditions of revenge and honour that don’t entirely belie this racist caricature, but that’s not the problem. The problem, of course, is the oil. It’s why we’ve always been interested in the area. In 1905, Winston Churchill as First Sea Lord made a decision that the Royal Navy, on which the Empire depended, would henceforth be fuelled by oil, not Welsh Dry Steam Coal. A decision that the Navy’s seamen certainly welcomed, because “coaling-ship” was an endless chore whenever ships were in harbour; pumping oil into bunkers was much easier. Time in harbour gave time for a “run ashore” in place of coaling, coaling, coaling, always bloody coaling. But Britain had no oil. It needed access to the oil in the Gulf for it new policy; and its naval base at Aden was essential for that. And the world’s thirst for oil drove the course of most of the wars of the twentieth century.

Oil begets money, and money begets corruption. The trillions of dollars that we have pumped into the economy of the Middle East is, far more than the doctrines of a eighteenth century ascetic Muslim scholar, the cause of the problem. Wahhabism is the vehicle, but oil is the fuel. No, not oil: our greed for oil. Dollars. Dollars are the problem. We pay them dollars for the oil and then grovel with them to buy our jets so we get some of the dollars back.

The solution, then, is to wean ourselves off oil. America begins to realise this, but its fracking/shale solution depends on high world oil prices, and high world oil prices are the problem. The answer is to stop using oil at all. Reduce the demand world-wide. It will hurt the Russians as well. I’m afraid that I expect that the present low oil price will, sooner or later, swing up again. But it doesn’t have to. We need to use the slack provided by low prices to push towards substitution. Invest in alternatives: we know what they are. Wind, solar, nuclear, and energy efficiency. We need a collective push to defeat the law of supply and demand, by keeping demand down even when the price is low. It can be done, it must be done both for the sake of the climate and for cutting off the flow of blood money to the Saudi despots.

The first piece of personal news on today’s iPM on BBC Radio 4 was, “my 94-year old mother joined the Green Party. It was her first Internet transaction ever”. Good to hear. The Green Party has a consistent position on Saudi Arabia. It, alone, is in a position to condemn without hypocrisy. I know Louise Mensch is now living in America, but based on today’s rant she’d do well to join the Greens.

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