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01/15 - For immigration

Sophie Grove, Senior editor

What would you do if you heard a prospective job applicant was willing to risk everything packed into the bowels of an articulated lorry for hours just to get a chance to work for your company? At the very least, you might give him an ­interview. But that’s not the view most nation states take. During times of fiscal strife politicians tighten border controls and bump up visa regulations. Immigration is the kerosene of domestic politics and policy makers like to be seen dousing the flames.

But while they battle to defend their borders, their economies are missing a trick. There is a compelling economic case for a more laissez-faire approach to the global movement of labour. Most pure economists believe that if governments would only relax their border controls, the global economy could benefit. Loose and liberal migration rules would provide a stimulus of trillions.

That’s because immigrants are aspirational. They work hard to better their families and establish themselves. As ever, history provides the examples – it’s this injection of hard work that has been the making of economies, including the US and Australia. Of course, there are a few pitfalls to this principle. If migrants move to simply live off the generous welfare ­benefits most western societies offer then the argument is rather scuppered.

But most of them don’t and they often do jobs other people don’t want to do. The irony is, countries like Australia built by pioneers and exiles, have worked up a deep-seated fear of immigrants. They put them on Pacific islands and leave them there. The US border with Mexico is one of the most fiercely guarded stretches of turf on the planet.

What’s more, countries such as Italy where the birth rate has been dwindling for years, may have no choice but to bolster their population with migrants. Yet they remain convinced that foreign workers will steal their jobs and ruin their society. The economist Philippe Legrain also states the moral case for less migration control and insists that freedom of movement is a human right. His book ­Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them! says that migrants work harder and make better use of technology and public institutions than their indigenous counterparts.

It’s not all rosy. An influx of foreign labour can be fraught with cultural problems. And a group of willing and able unskilled migrants always run the risk of depressing the wages of workers in the West. Given the political minefield it offers, perhaps it’s impossible to imagine a world without border controls. But Michael A Clemens from the Washington-based Center for Global Development insists that even the slightest tweaks to the ­immigration barriers that characterise policy everywhere from Australia to Switzerland could boost dramatically the global economy.

“The idea is that people go to where they are most productive,” says Donald Robertson, a professor of economics at Cambridge University. “So we all end up better off – the pie is bigger.” Western economies need to stop pandering to the fears of its populations and let the global workforce in. Or at least give some of them a trial shift.

Monocle comment: Politically explosive, we fully accept, but that doens’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. If it’s good enough for the European Union then it should be good enough for the whole world. It’s time to open the gates.

02/15 - It’s not that simple

Steve Bloomfield, Monocle’s foreign editor

In the age of the soundbite, the person with the pithy 10-word answer is the person who wins the argument. Like so many things that are true, this argument was best expressed by a fictional character, in this case, the liberal fantasy president in television’s The West Wing, Jed Bartlet. Speaking in a presidential debate against a George W Bush clone, Bartlet responds to a snappy 10-word answer by eloquently revealing the emptiness of a slogan. “There aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words,” he finishes, to adoring cheers. And nor are there many unnuanced moments for the rest of us, either. In our work life and home life things are complicated; everything is made up of shades of grey.

The urge to make things simple is understandable. It’s also stupid. Simplification makes us dumber. News debates are reduced to X versus Y, red corner versus blue corner. CNN gets two opposing views, challenges neither, then says “let’s leave it there”. Making things simple – dumbing down, if you like – is not just making us stupid, it is downright dangerous. From the war in Iraq to the global financial crisis, the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur to the debate on climate change, the urge to simplify has led to disaster. Perversely, this is a remarkably simple argument. Complex problems require complex solutions. Simple problems require simple solutions. If we make the complex simple we end up with the wrong solutions. This isn’t about over-complicating arguments. Nor is it about using long words when plain English will do just fine. Nor is this an argument about how clever (or otherwise) we are. Life is complicated. Let’s not pretend it’s easy.

Monocle comment: Television news channels and radio stations should give their debates room to breathe – and not just invite two extreme views to battle it out and call that balanced reporting.

03/15 - Orient,express

Nick Kelly, Writer

At a time when the idea of Europe appears to be crumbling before our eyes, it’s worth remembering how things looked before the blue flag with the 12 yellow stars existed.

Today we think nothing of jumping on a train or plane, that little maroon passport giving us laissez-passer from Munich to Malmö, Stockholm to Seville. But we tend to forget how much planning used to be entailed before embarking on the European trail.

The services of a travel agent were required to arrange transport by ferry, couchette, coach or plane. An itinerary would be drawn up, hotels all mapped out in advance. Travellers’ cheques had to be bought and pesetas, francs and marks had to be at the ready. At every European border you would be grilled by an officious customs agent.

If you were lucky you might find a room for the night at a friendly auberge but you would have to wait until the next morning to book a crackly call home to say all was well. It was not just holidays that seemed so, well, foreign; it was work too. Attempts to set up a business in another European country were mired in red tape; moving home across borders was similarly fraught. The creation of the single market and its gradual expansion – both in terms of countries included and areas covered – transformed the way that Europe did business. We all learnt more about our neighbours, borrowing the best bits and making jokes out of the worst.

As the Eurozone crisis deepens, and as our leaders retreat into a protectionist bubble, let us not forget the advantages that being European now bring.

Monocle comment: Although one good thing about the days or border controls was at least your passport looked good – those stamps signalled a certain worldliness.

04/15 - It’s what’s inside

Jonathan Openshaw, Monocle’s business editor

On my morning commute; I notice that the woman next to me is tapping away on an Hermès-clad iPad. It’s a sign of the times that as the willingness to pay for content reaches an all-time low, accessories that cost more than the device itself abound. New Media beauty is, apparently, only sleeve deep.

Luxury houses from Smythson to Valextra to Hermès, have all come to the aid of the padders. One enterprising American designer has made iPad covers out of Bernie Madoff’s auctioned-off clothes. The pad-people seem to realise that their device says nothing about them. Certainly not say in the way that a book jacket can.

But no amount of craft will mask the fact that until people are willing to fork out for what goes inside the tablet the media industry has a crucial battle on its hands.

Monocle comment: In Japan people often have covers over their books, hiding the contents bit revealing the name of the bookshop – handy if your reading habits are resolutely downmarket.

05/15 - Rules for dictators

Alastair Smith, Writer

What makes a dictator successful? For democratic leaders one might suggest many criteria relating to the welfare of the people, but the despot should really be judged by the standards that they care most about – that is surviving in office. Although recently deposed, Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Libya’s Gaddafi all displayed a rather impressive longevity.

To be successful, that is to survive in office, all autocrats need to follow some simple rules. The first, and most important, is to rely on as few supporters as possible. Keeping many people happy is much harder than satiating a few. Democrats have a dreadful time because they must keep millions of people content. Dictators know that, provided they have the resources to buy loyalty, the few will loyally train the guns on the many.

Another core rule is that dictators should tax heavily as it is always better to choose who eats, than to allow the people to feed themselves from a larger pie. Gaddafi was a master in this regard. He and his cronies took over all aspects of the Libyan economy so no one got rich except by his largesse.

Despite the Transitional National Council’s democratic declarations, the essence of retaining power is to rely on the loyal few and to control the money. Elections are likely, but meaningful elections may not be. There could be a flurry of violence as the TNC’s members fight for control of Libya’s vast oil revenues with which they can buy loyalty from those with weapons. Once the winner has monopolised the weapons and become knowledgeable about where the money is and who to trust, the new leader will purge the ranks of his supporters.

If dictatorial survival is so easy, then why do dictators eventually fall? Here two pertinent rules apply: pay supporters their due and don’t improve the welfare of the people beyond what is necessary for them to work and pay taxes. Mubarak and Ben Ali fell afoul of the first rule. Their ages, health concerns and economic difficulties made them unreliable sources of future graft to their supporters who deserted them rather than defending them when the people rose up.

Gaddafi’s error was more avoidable. He provided better education and healthcare than his neighbours and in recent years he had even relaxed some press censorship when he should have been cracking heads. His unnecessary kindnesses – no, really – allowed the people to organise against him and it cost him his life. Would-be dictators taking notes are unlikely to make the same mistake.

Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita are co-authors of ‘The Dictator’s Handbook’ (Public Affairs, 2011)

Monocle comment: Despite the success of the Arab uprisings, most of the world’s dictators are still in power. The chances of a Central Asian Spring or a colour-coded revolution in China or Burma remain remote.

06/15 - Good sport

David Goldblatt, Olympics author

When the Olympics comes to London in July 2012 the famous faces and the blue-riband events will be the ones which attract the attention – Michael Phelps in the swimming pool, Usain Bolt on the track. But the Olympics should be about more than that. It should be about events like the modern pentathlon.

The event grew from the imagination of Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern games, and was a sporting version of an Edwardian proto-James Bond fantasy. A military officer trapped behind enemy lines would need to swim, ride and run to escape, and use his pistol and sword to fight his pursuers. When the IOC said yes, the Baron wrote that they had been moved by “the Holy Ghost of sport”.

It was originally reserved for serving commissioned military officers who took a leisurely five days to complete the event. These days it’s open to anyone and packed into a single frenzied day. Proceedings begin with sudden-death épée fencing, 200m free-style swimming sprints and a show-jumping test on horses that the athletes will have never ridden before. The day ends with a combined shooting and running finale; first across the line gets the gold.

Modern pentathlon has proved wonderfully controversial, providing the first athlete to fail a drugs test and a rider so incensed with his horse that he physically attacked it. Some Olympic officials would like to kick the modern pentathlon out of the games – so catch it while you can.

Monocle comment: Perhaps it’s time to bring back some of the other original events. We’re confident a modern version of tug-of-war would prove popular – both with audiences and advertisers.

07/15 - US politics

Sasha Issenberg, Washington correspondent

Barely one-third of the way through the long march of a US presidential campaign, let us pause to enjoy one bit of relief: the 2012 election looks reassuringly like the last one. The press have been thrilled at technological breakthroughs around which it can tell a story of our ever-modernising, consumer-friendly politics. In 2004 it was online organising for campaign events; in 2008 the social-media boom.

Anyone looking to write the next chapter in 2012 will grow frustrated. Certainly the technological terrain has changed since Barack Obama was elected. But there is no shiny new thing that voters, donors or volunteers will touch that can support claims of a quantum leap in political tools. This time, nearly all the improvements will be largely invisible. While those on the outside saw Obama’s sleek iPhone app in 2008 and celebrated his digital prowess, the campaign’s Chicago headquarters struggled with basics. They were never able to link the exhaustive digital storeroom of records collected from electoral rolls and field operations, tracking which voters got a phone call or a canvasser’s visit, with the database of those who registered as a supporter online. Since then, the Democratic National Committee has invested in an unprecedented repository pulling together ­information from all these sources into a single, seamless database profiling every American adult.

The beneficiary will be the quality of Obama’s predictive models – using algorithms to calculate whether and how a citizen is likely to vote in much the same way that banks assess a borrower’s likelihood of default – and large-scale randomised experiments that enlist voters as unwitting guinea pigs. The only way a voter will learn about any of these breakthroughs is when Obama’s staff and volunteers start talking to them in meaningful ways that respect their individuality. The rural isolationist hunter will learn how Obama has been friendly to gun owners. The supporter who gave $50 online won’t get annoyed by non-stop reminders to vote. The undecided voter who isn’t persuaded by postcards will see ads on her favourite cable-television show instead.

Monocle comment: There is the bigger revolution in American politics over the past decade, more important than any new mobile app or social media platform: campaigns have started treating voters like people again.

08/15 - Now they’re gone

Andrew Mueller, Writer

It is always going to be too soon to wax nostalgic for the pomp of the late Colonel Gaddafi. He was a vicious thug, a certifiable lunatic, and his country and the world will be immeasurably better off without him. But for a certain class of spectator of foreign affairs his passing is a loss, of sorts. Buried in Gaddafi’s ignominious grave may also be the phenomenon of the old-school Ruritanian despot.

The Colonel was probably doomed the moment the first Libyan erected a satellite dish. Personality cults can only thrive in a controlled environment, in which the population can be cowed and hypnotised into not noticing or acknowledging that their leader is ridiculous. Now that a tyrant’s subjects can watch foreign news or wander the web, they can discover that the world is laughing, and they might start understanding why Saddam Hussein, repulsive but not entirely stupid, wouldn’t even let outsiders bring mobile phones into his Iraq.

The passing of the crackpot autocrat, it cannot be stressed sufficiently, is a good thing. The vicious whims of any such vainglorious buffoon – an Idi Amin, a Jean-Bédel Bokassa, a Nicolae Ceausescu – should not be wished upon anybody. A planet governed by diffident technocrats in suits, who stand uncomplainingly down when voted out, is obviously a more affable habitat than one ruled by preposterous dingbats with chestfuls of self-awarded decorations and silly hats perched atop their clamorous heads.

However, Gaddafi and his ilk did perform a service, of sorts – they could be seen as mordant jesters, corporeal reminders of the corruption, hubris and folly that inevitably attends absolute power. We still have something for which to thank Kim Jong-Il.

Monocle comment: To predict the end of despotism is mighty close to predicting the end of dangerous, charismatic personalities latching onto a cause and people’s infinite appetite for believing in them.

09/15 - Electric wok syndrome

John Naughton, Technology expert

A terrible affliction stalks the tech community. It’s called Electric Wok Syndrome (EWS) and engineers and marketers are particularly vulnerable to it. It gets its name from the fact that while nobody in their right mind would want an electric wok, nevertheless they are made – and marketed. You think I jest? Well, just check with Amazon.

EWS is pervasive in technology. We’ve seen it at its most pernicious in “educational technology”. Engineers invent some gadget and then someone thinks, “Hey, this could be useful for teaching,” without ever asking whether there is a real problem that the gizmo solves.

That’s how we come to have schools with expensive “computer labs”, which are useless for either teaching or learning. Strangely, the one location where EWS hasn’t yet obtained a foothold is the kitchen. But that won’t last long if the tech fanatics have their way. Their fantasies are fuelled by two new acronyms. The first is RFID which stands for Radio Frequency Identification. RFID tags are essentially barcodes that can broadcast their identity to nearby reading devices. The second acronym is IPv6, a new addressing system for the internet which could provide a unique internet address for every molecule on the planet.

With RFID and IPv6, so the enthusiasts burble, your toaster, microwave and fridge could be hooked up to the internet. And every food item could have its own RFID tag. So you could pop that pack of pasta into the microwave, which would then read the tag, look it up on an internet database to find the right cooking time and get on with it. Meanwhile the fridge could be figuring out that you’re running out of houmous and ordering it from Tesco Direct. And so on.

But would this stuff actually improve your life? You only have to ask the question to know the answer.

Monocle comment: Would a holiday be a holiday without the sense of anticipatory excitement that greets you on arrival home when you open the fridge to discover what you’ve managed to grow? A gardener’s delight.

10/15 - Flag waving

Andrew Tuck, Monocle’s editor

From Tunis to Homs it’s been a very good 12 months for seamstresses, indeed anyone nimble with a sewing machine and with access to a few bales of suitably coloured fabric. Everyone it seems has been putting in flag orders – and the bigger the flags are the better. In Libya they ditched the all-green flag (at least it was simple to draw) of Gaddafi for the old royal one that was first introduced in 1951, but the amazing thing was that in days of the revolution starting they were everywhere. Who had the hindsight to place such a massive cloth order? It showed the sort of production dexterity you normally associate with the Zaras of this world. In Syria they seem to like a flag as long as a highway. But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that we still rally behind a flag and that no nation would dare go without one. Pole stars are the future.

Monocle comment: It’s tricky designing a flag. You want it to look distinctive without being difficult for children to copy. Stripes are nice but people get confused – is that Italy or France? Perhaps the Swiss have the all-time winner.

11/15 - Iron filing

Tyler Brûlé, Monocle’s editor in chief

Much has been made about the importance of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers as key anchors in our communities. While candlestick makers might be a bit of a stretch, the value of a small manufacturer/retailer in the neighbourhood shouldn’t be underestimated. From Vancouver to Edinburgh, Oslo to Melbourne, urban planners, property developers and community leaders are either locking horns or holding hands as they wrestle with the future shape and form of retail districts and their relationship to the residents that surround them – should communities attract dependable, known brands who can pay high rents and help increase property values or should mom and pop shops be maintained to give communities the necessary glue to hold them together?

Monocle’s HQ sits in the middle of a neighbourhood that’s going through a complicated growth spurt – moving from well-heeled district with an interesting collection of relevant, independent shops that reflect the needs of the people that populate the area to a well-heeled district that’s starting to become a destination for international brands that want a more interesting address and slightly cheaper real estate than Mayfair. As bigger international brands have forced out some of the more quaint stores in the area, there’s a real danger that the very shops that make Marylebone what it is (a vibrant, perfectly positioned neighbourhood at the heart of Europe’s biggest city) will soon be replaced by global brands that are perfectly lovely but have no relevance to daily, neighbourhood life.

Having been resident in the area for nearly 15 years, I’ve watched the fishmonger close up, the lightbulb lady pull down her shutters, a laundry give up the game and a corner shop (that seemed to be a front for al-Qaeda) move to a less conspicuous location. My biggest concern is that the little ironmonger (hardware shop) might be the next to go. While I know they do a brisk trade in vacuum cleaner bags, tape measures, cleaning solutions and all kinds of screws and fastening materials, I also know there are plenty of retailers with healthy chequebooks eyeing up their space.

The area’s main landlord knows the importance of essential services like our little ironmonger but I also know they’re easily tempted by shiny new awnings belonging to purveyors of dainty chocolates or traders of fine linens. I think ironmongers need special status in communities as they’re not only incredible repositories of common sense solutions to daily problems (how do I fit a dimmer switch?) but they’re places where we bump into neighbours, have things repaired and find delight in doing things by hand.

Monocle comment: For more on the challenges facing our local neighbourhood, listen to episode two of The Urbanist on Monocle 24 by going to our player or iTunes.

12/15 - China’s leaders

Kerry Brown, Author

In late 2012, the Communist Party will hold its 18th Congress – the big meeting held every five years that decides Party policy, and, in the case of this next one, who the new leadership will be for the next five years. This congress will be more important than most: of the current all-powerful nine-strong Politburo Standing Committee, seven will step down.

The retiring leaders are predominantly technocrats – engineers, who have excellent administrative abilities but poor communication skills. They have shown little appetite for political reforms. Their key achievement is to have delivered an era of good growth for China. But in terms of political change, this has been a stagnant era. More worryingly, the country is as unequal as it was a decade ago when the current leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, came to power.

The new leaders are from social and political science backgrounds. Xi Jinping, likely to replace Hu as the Party boss and president, has a degree in politics. Li Keqiang, who is likely to be his premier, in charge of the government, is from a legal background. They have a more shallow memory of the traumas of the Cultural Revolution which radicalised the generation before them, and are symbolic of two strands in the party elite. Xi is a typical representative of the Party aristocracy, whose father was a key ally of Mao Zedong, while Li comes from the grassroots, with a more modest background.

What are the political views of this new generation? It is hard to say. What is clear is that as economic development has been the key priority since the great transformation began in 1978, so now we are moving into an era of deeper social political change, in which issues like rule of law, the role of civil society, and a new way of dealing with contention in society become priorities. Whatever the detail, what we do know is that China’s new leaders will have to have the political will to confront these immense issues in the coming years. And on their success or failure will hang, increasingly, the prosperity and stability of the rest of the world.

Monocle comment: The prospect of a likely change at the top in the US as well as China could turn 2012 into a political watershed.

13/15 - Russia’s leaders

Andrew Osborn, Writer

Little is certain in Russia but it is safe to say that only a natural disaster or an act of God will prevent Vladimir Putin from returning to the Kremlin in May 2012. In many respects he never left.

Though a constitutional technicality forced him to leave the presidency in 2008 (after eight years), he has since used the position of prime minister to remain the country’s most powerful politician.

Opinion polls give him a stellar approval rating of 68 per cent, a result most Western politicians can only dream of. Yet the 59-year-old former KGB spy is fond of insisting that the March election is not preordained. “It will be up to Russian citizens,” he said in a recent interview.

The reality is of course rather different. Mr Putin leads the ruling United Russia party, a party that has mimicked the Soviet Communist party’s dominance of political life. In what is a de facto one party state it controls every lever of power, including the all-important state media. Elections are therefore a formality rather than a genuine contest. The Kremlin even has an expression for it: “managed democracy”.

There are two common views of what Mr Putin’s return to the presidency might herald. Since most people believe that he never stopped pulling the strings, the first is that little will change. Others are convinced he will reinvent himself as a bold liberal reformer in order to confound his critics. Whichever direction he chooses, Russia’s relations with the West are unlikely to improve. Mr Putin shows no signs of diluting his famously acerbic anti-western rhetoric.

Presidential terms have been extended to six years from four – and Mr Putin is entitled to serve two back-to-back terms. That would keep him in power until 2024 and make him the longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.

Monocle comment: Vladimir Putin recently revealed to the press that he regards himself as the most hardworking and physically capable Russian leader since the Second World War. It must be all that judo training.

14/15 - War reporters

James Brabazon, Writer

We need war reporters for the same reason we need eyes: to see – and to see with the confidence that what we are looking at is credible, and authentic.

Reportage by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has its place – in war, all information is potential gold – but it needs to be thoroughly sifted and tested. Unlike citizen journalists, professional war reporters work within strict legal parameters: they must be fair and honest; they are bound to protect their sources and the safety of their subjects; and, if they break those rules, they are held accountable.

Courageous local journalists often do an amazing job of collecting source ­material. But as my friend and experienced war reporter Tim Hetherington once said, “Witnessing is not enough”. What Tim – who was killed by shrapnel while working in Libya – and other war ­reporters do is translate “over there” to “over here”. Their job is as much one of interpretation, as it is of recounting hard facts. Our eyes: war seen and understood through the filter of our own cultural perspective. When Sky TV’s Alex Crawford bumped into Tripoli on the back of a truck with Libya’s rebels she achieved, perfectly, what every war reporter aspires to: to tell a difficult story from the ground up, exclusively. What her reporting said was deceptively simple: this is where nato has brought us. You’re paying for this and this is what’s happening – right here, right now. And consequently she posed ­another crucial, if unspoken question: how do you feel about it?

What Crawford and the other great war reporters of our time know is that on the frontline, what you understand of the conflict is what you see of it at any one time: about a hundred sq m. Analysis and editorials come second to, and depend upon, the act of being there.

And there is no substitute for having eyes on the ground, and hands to turn over fresh evidence. We will, for example, never really know how Colonel Gaddafi died, and why those he terrorised were denied the chance of seeing him stand trial. I’d gladly swap all the grizzly phone footage, breathless rebel accounts and columns of hubris for one eye witness ­account by a professional war reporter.

And it is important that we see war: just because the lives of those marginalised, oppressed and victimised by the obscenity of violence are hard to pull into focus does not mean they are any less worthy of scrutiny. On the contrary. Whether it’s in the headline conflicts of Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan or the secret wars in Colombia, Uganda and Somalia your taxes are being used to lethal effect. As Tim and I used to remind each other, “We might not change a thing, but they’ll never be able to say they didn’t know.”

Monocle comment: The power of war reporters is clearly understood by the Syrian leadership, whose ban on foreign press throughout the uprising has meant that those who wish to claim ignorance can, however unconvincingly.

15/15 - The zzzz Factor

Anthony Barnes, Music writer

The television talent show has taken over the world. Every country, apparently, has Got Talent, as well as a well-stocked roster of Idols and singers with the X-Factor. The attraction to us, the viewers, is watching ordinary people – a Chinese potato farmer or a Welsh barmaid – turn into superstars before our eyes.

At least that was the attraction. Back where it all began, in the UK, the once unthinkable has happened. After year upon year of audience growth, the viewership for the biggest talent show of them all, the X Factor, has plateaued and then – gulp – dipped.

The show entered a Faustian pact with the tabloid press, thirsty for scandal, sex and behind-the-scenes rows. X Factor sells papers and the publicity drives audiences. This year’s British sideshow has included a teenage Romeo whose conquests are tattooed on his buttocks, a falsetto drag queen and finalists walking out.

None of this has been enough to rescue the audience. Maybe 2012 will be the year when the talent show carousel stops spinning.

Monocle comment: Please let it be true: the rebirth of musicians who are discovered without the indignity of a panto tv parade.

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