Sunday, April 05, 2015

Spy Dust

The world of spies, probably because it’s so shrouded in mystery, has always been intriguing.  I think this holds true for most people, as evidenced by the abundance of books advertising themselves as historically accurate as well as the standard fiction.  Both genres have seen success as movies.  My interest in spies typically does not dwell in the world of fiction, but in the realm of history and current events, although I did read and mostly enjoy the original Bourne trilogy.  World War II and the Cold War have always interested me, and that is also true as far as spying goes.  I actually heard about the book Spy Dust a few years ago, but never read it, thinking the title was maybe just a little bit too outlandish to really be about something that was real.  (It turns out that it really is a real thing and something not just used by intelligence services, but police departments, too.)

Book cover.In Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations That Helped Win the Cold War (ISBN: 978-0-7434-2853-8) by Antonio and Jonna Mendez with Bruce Henderson, spy dust itself plays a rather minor role.  The two authors and their craft, disguises, get the majority of the attention.  The story follows both authors in their CIA careers a few years before they came to know about spy dust through an operation that saw them defeat the theretofore undefeated powder.  Antonio was a master of disguise with years and years of experience; Jonna more of an extremely talented up-and-coming star in the CIA.  The book focuses on their teamwork to exfiltrate someone they claim was a well-connected and high-placed Soviet spying for the U.S.  The operation included a handful of Americans and the Russian and his family.  They used all their disguise know-how, which includes a lot of things that aren’t so much about disguises, but simply about how one ports oneself and how people are not able to notice every little thing if what one is doing mostly follows the normal routine.  The daring operation defeated the Russians’ spy dust and got everyone out of the country safely.

In general, I enjoyed the book.  I thought the main story as well as a couple of the smaller operations discussed in the build-up to the one that gave the book its title were very interesting.  When they finally got to telling about that final operation, it was actually pretty exciting reading, and I think I whipped through it pretty quickly with great anticipation, even though it’s obvious the book wouldn’t have been written had the operation gone south.  My big complaint with the book was that it was slow in some parts.  This is especially true when it comes to discussions of the romantic relationship between the two authors, who eventually married.  They talk about it having an impact on their work, but that still seemed to me to be a minor detail and not something that needed to take up scores of pages.  Maybe shorter books don’t sell?  I personally thought the big operation in Moscow could’ve handled a little more detail, and with the discussion of the authors’ personal lives left out, the book would’ve really been cool.  It was an interesting look at one small but important piece of the Cold War, but probably could’ve more than just interesting.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

War and Peace

An extraordinary strength of vitality — the strength
which in that vast space amid the snows maintained
the life of this original, peculiar and unique people.

— Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), War and Peace

My first exposure to War and Peace came as a young boy when I saw a ridiculously fat book sitting on a counter at one of my grandparents’ houses.  I was intrigued enough to crack it open, but the endless pages of small print about Napoleon and the Russians meant absolutely nothing to me.  Still, I was fascinated by the idea that someone would sit down and read a book over 1,000 pages.  After returning from my mission to St. Petersburg, Russia, I ended up deciding to double major while at BYU, and Russian was the major I added.  One of our classes was a survey of Russian literature (in translation).  We read a number of books during the one-semester class (the reading assignments were killer), but I gained a larger appreciation for some of the Russian classics.  That class probably inspired me, in general, to seek out more classical literature in addition to the history and politics books that I typically enjoy.  At some point, I knew I’d tackle that ridiculously fat book from my childhood.

Book cover.War and Peace (ISBN: 978-0-19-953605-4) by Leo Tolstoy (Louise and Aylmer Maude translation) is arguably what we would call historical fiction today.  The only difference is that it was written soon after the events it depicts and likely had some direct impact of one sort or another on its author.  He definitely paints his version of the events surrounding Napoleon’s campaigns.  There is a lot of Tolstoy’s philosophy woven into the story, but essentially, the story follows a few main characters through their youth and into adulthood as they embark upon their careers and family life.  Tolstoy’s characters are varied and present all kinds of different people with all sorts of different character traits.  The reader also gets to become acquainted with the characters in all kinds of situations, which lets one see the best and the worst of the characters.  There are hundreds of members of the supporting cast, some playing a more important role than others.  With so many people in the book, it’s probably a legitimately arguable point just who the main characters are, but I think it was Pierre and Natasha, the two that one sees from beginning to end in the book.  Natasha, young, beautiful, and fun-loving, is the object of just about every young man’s fancy.  She falls in love, spurns her fiancĂ© for the temporary affection of a married man and known womanizer, later repents of that mistake, but must suffer when, seemingly through chance, her original fiancĂ©, wounded severely in the war, is evacuated from burning Moscow along with her family and dies as they make the trek.  Pierre as a young man is short-sighted, rash, and searching for something more in life than the dissipated life he leads drinking, playing cards, and chasing women.  Throughout the book, one sees him struggle to figure out what life is about.  He tries Masonry, civil service, an ill-advised marriage, and philanthropy.  None of them really do it for him.  When captured by the French while observing the battles near Moscow, he meets a peasant soldier from whom he learns a lot about the meaning of life.  After Napoleon’s retreat, the changed Pierre is re-acquainted with Natasha, and eventually they go on to form a happy family.

Many Russians with whom I have discussed literature have told me that if one enjoys Dostoevsky, one will likely not enjoy Tolstoy.  I had previously found this to be true, as I thought Crime and Punishment was a great book, but found Anna Karenina to be excruciatingly painful to read (it can be summed up like this: some rich woman has an affair and then kills herself).  I, therefore, approached War and Peace with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised.  Others may, of course, get something different out of the book, but I found Pierre’s change from a going-nowhere youth to a respectable family man with an overwhelmingly positive attitude on life that rubbed off on others to be a great message, especially since it coincided with him coming to terms with his belief in God.  I was intrigued by the thoroughly pro-Russian view presented by Tolstoy throughout the book, especially as it concerned the war years.  He was quite dismissive of foreign leaders, both civilian and military, although — somewhat surprisingly — the Russian tsar didn’t really escape his scorn, either.  Tolstoy presented the great Russian general Kutuzov as a fallible man and even soft in his old age, but also one who was above the fray, which I found to be a quality worthy of emulation.  Some of Tolstoy’s discussion of fate versus agency was difficult to follow philosophically, and even given a little time to digest it, I’m not one hundred percent sure I completely understand what he was trying to say.  What I got out of it, though, was the part of the book I liked least.  Tolstoy argued that fate or pre-destination determines the way our lives play out.  He claims that we need the illusion of free will or agency to function, but that we really play little to no role in how it all works out in the end.  He argues that in a given moment, it seems like we are making choices, but when you step back from the moment and see the whole timeline laid out before you, it becomes apparent that it was, in reality, impossible to make any different choice.  That is, of course, the exact opposite of what I believe, and what is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which agency is central to all that happens to us.  The choices we make have a direct effect on what happens to us as everything has consequences, good or bad.  So, the story was enjoyable, the Russophile viewpoint was interesting, although Tolstoy may dispute that he was presenting that outlook, and the philosophy was difficult and disagreeable.  Overall, War and Peace was a worthy read.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education

I had a very mixed experience as far as school is concerned.  I experienced both home school and public school.  While much more common now than when I did it, I continued a somewhat unorthodox path through college, attending a private, religious school and doing things like testing out of classes and taking independent study classes.  Eventually I got a master’s degree online.  The odyssey started in third grade, when my mom took me out of public school because she thought there was only one teacher at the school that could properly help me.  I was an advanced student for my age and prone to misbehavior when bored.  After a couple years at home, I asked my parents to send me back since that’s where my friends were.  At the end of that year, I was more than happy to be back at home for sixth grade.  Junior high, which scars many a person for life, tried hard with me, too, especially since we moved between my seventh- and eighth-grade years.  In high school I had a steady diet of AP classes mixed with various gym classes.  I considered early college for my senior year, but had a couple good friends at school, so decided to stick it out.  The benefits were skipping class to play basketball and running on the track team, where lots of girls practiced in nothing but short shorts and sports bras.  Academics were beside the point, and I breezed through even my AP classes.  The point, of course, is that throughout my schooling, the standard one-size-fits-all approach did not serve me well.

Book cover.In Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education by Glenn Beck, Kyle Olson, and Kevin Balfe (ISBN: 978-1-4767-7388-9), the authors attack the federal government- and union-led approach to education in America.  The first half of the book is dedicated to debunking the typical arguments one hears about why public schools are the only way to go.  They also focus on the idea that the government should control schools, curricula, and even what students eat.  They present argument after argument showing that centrally-controlled education fails the vast majority of students outside the average and even a good many who are average.  They show that the current system encourages mediocrity, whether that be in students, teachers, or the school systems themselves.  Education policy is controlled by bureaucrats far removed from the process, unions who, despite what they say, care more about collecting money for their bosses than what teachers or students need, and administrators, legislators, teachers, and union officials who have an agenda to push.  The second part of the book talks about what us normal people can do to change.  We don’t have to conform to the system, the authors argue, but if we want to control our own or our kids’ education, we have to be involved in bringing about the change we want to see.  We have to participate in school boards, in meetings, on curriculum committees, and in elections, as voters, candidates, and campaign workers or volunteers.  They cite examples of places real change has taken place and note that more can happen should we choose to make it happen.

The book is a follow-on to Beck’s book about gun control and written in exactly the same manner and style.  This book does not live up to its predecessor.  I found the arguments to be weaker and not as convincing, although they were still all true.  The school question is a big one, and they touch on many different aspects.  I think the writing was a little scattered in places and could’ve used some focus.  I enjoyed the suggestions at the end of the book.  It is Beck’s style to encourage participation and responsibility instead of just complaining about a problem.  While he prophesies a lot of doom and gloom on his shows, I think his overall message is one of optimism, but only if we choose to get involved in the processes around us that affect our lives.  If we’re not involved, they’ll pass us by and we’ll really only get the messed up society we deserve.  The voice of the people usually gets it right, but all the people have to make their voices heard.  I like that message.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Assisted: An Autobiography

As a kid, I was pop culture-challenged.  Who am I kidding here?  I still am.  That even extended into the sports world, and when my neighborhood friends and I would get together to play some basketball in our back yard or in a nearby driveway, it usually involved picking a team to be.  If the Jazz weren’t available by the time it was my turn to play, I was at a loss.  The Jazz were, to a certain extent, the limit of my knowledge of the NBA when I was a really young kid.  As I got older, though, they continued to be the true focus of my knowledge of the NBA.  I just wasn’t (and am not) interested in other teams, nor do I have the time to get into other teams or players.  I care about the Utah Jazz.  It was easy to become a Jazz fan with guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Mark Eaton on the team.  They were all blue-collar guys, and it showed in the way they played.  I never wavered in my love for the Jazz, but I don’t hesitate at all to say that it has dropped off since Stockton and Malone are no longer playing.  They were special.  Stockton was also alluring as a role model, both on and off the court.  He was intensely private, but I always felt that he was not really hiding anything, and the even-keeled guy that “never dogged a play in [his] life” was the same guy we would see were we to see him off the court.

Book cover.Assisted: An Autobiography (ISBN: 978-1-60907-570-5) by John Stockton, if nothing else, proved me right in my assumption.  Memoir might be a better description of the book, but those arguments about semantics take nothing away from a rather thorough look at Stockton’s life as a little kid roaming the neighborhood with his friends on long summer days to his time as an NBA star and through his post-retirement activities.  He told about his upbringing, his childhood, his high school days, his experiences in college, including various summer jobs, basketball, and dating.  He talked about making it in the NBA, being a rookie, changes in the game, some of former Jazz owner Larry Miller’s quirks, and a host of other things that fans and disinterested parties alike might find interesting.  He talked about his family, and his parents and wife in particular.  He discussed a couple of his coaches, including Jerry Sloan, an NBA great and another hard-nosed, down-to-earth, blue-collar guy.  Stockton’s discussion of the Olympics was fascinating because he was very open about his love for his country and the great responsibility he felt putting U.S.A. on his chest.  He discussed his life after basketball, except that it hasn’t really been life after basketball as some of his kids of played at a very high level, he’s restored a warehouse and turned it into a community sports center, and he’s still involved in the occasional pickup game.  Finally, as part of the proving my assumptions true, his tale is woven throughout with references to family, God, prayer, hard work, and other old-fashioned values.

I wanted to read this book the moment I saw it existed.  Everyone knew John Stockton the leading assist man in the history of the world, but many felt they did’t know John Stockton the person.  Like I said, I figured he was kind of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person, but I was intrigued to read nevertheless.  The book was a draft of fresh air with each turn of a page.  Stockton comes across as down-to-earth, brutally honest about some of the mistakes he’s made and shortcomings he’s got, and, in a way, an everyday guy that other everyday guys can identify with.  Former Jazz coach Frank Layden, in a statement to the press when the Jazz drafted the unknown John Stockton, explained that he was Catholic and his dad owned a bar, so there really shouldn’t be any questions about him.  Stockton didn’t think that would go over in Utah, largely Mormon and largely dry.  I think he might’ve missed the point about those two characteristics equating to a person that was a good guy and that knew about old-fashioned work ethic.  Stockton proved to be that guy and probably more.  In a world fraught with vice like the NBA, Stockton was different and stepped up to the plate when it came to responsibility of being a role model that is inherent to the position.  His thoughts on other issues, like abortion and family, were also very refreshing coming from a public figure.  The book was well worth the time spend reading it and only solidified my respect for the greatest point guard ever to play the game.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My Name Used to Be Muhammad

“I never thought I’d cry when my father died, but I wept like a baby.  I miss him terribly.
What I really miss is what we never had.  I would have spent another fifteen years
in prison in exchange for the opportunity to be close to my father as a boy.
I so badly wanted to please him.  I wanted to hear his praise.  I wanted to kick a soccer ball with him.
I wanted to paint him a picture and have him tell me he liked it.  I wanted to tell him
I met a girl and fell in love.  I wanted to ask him for advice.
I wanted to talk to him about something other than religion.  I wanted him to say something
to make me laugh.  I wanted him to put his hand on my shoulder and tell me about a time
when he made a mistake as a boy.  I wanted to see him miss my mother.
I wanted to be his boy.   Most of all, I wanted him to want me.”

Tito Momen

One of the most fascinating classes I took in college was a comparative religion class.  This was arguably my introduction to Islam.  I had run into some Muslims while on my mission in Russia, but my understanding of their religion was superficial at best.  It was in my world religions (I think that was its actual name) class that I learned more about the religion that claims more adherents than any other on our planet.  Since then, my travels as well as the events that have often taken center stage in the news have increased my knowledge of this fascinating religion.  As a staunch member of my own church, I find conversion stories to be miraculous, inspiring, and simply interesting.  Islam is known — rightly or wrongly is up for debate — for being extremely harsh in dealing with those who turn against it.  Conversions from the strong traditions of Islam to the all-encompassing doctrines of Mormonism are especially interesting from this standpoint.

Tito Momen, in My Name Used to Be Muhammad (ISBN: 978-1-60907-710-5), told just such a story.  His background was one of utmost Islamic piety in northern Nigeria to accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior and embracing the other doctrines and scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The journey was an interesting one, often wrought with peril.  Momen’s childhood and teenage years were fairly typical for boys in the area where his family lived.  His father was extremely strict, occasionally abusive, and based everything he did on his religion.  His plan for young Momen involved formal schooling with the ultimate goal of becoming part of the Islamic clergy.  Momen wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea, wishing to please his father and rather enjoying his schooling.  The only thing he didn’t really get was the lack of an outlet for his natural talents and the lack of room in his culture for questioning those in authority.  At a college in Damascus, Syria, he tired of abusive, extremist professors, eventually getting in a physical altercation with one that he despised the most.  While having the potential to be a real disaster, it ended up putting him on a path toward his eventual conversion.  He was able to go to Cairo, Egypt, to continue his schooling.  There, he met a very diverse group of people, including within the faithful Muslim community.  He learned that the northern Nigerian brand of Islam wasn’t the only one, and that many of those people were still good, faithful members of the faith.  He also ran into those who weren’t.  This diverse crowd led him to think a lot about his faith, and while he admits to making some choices that were not becoming of him, his upbringing, or really anyone, the process of change was something very foreign to someone coming from a background of total, blind obedience.  Eventually, he was kicked out of school in Egypt, too, having written an essay questioning Islam.  A French friend had converted to Mormonism in the meantime and introduced Momen to the Church.  After his conversion was complete, there were troubles with some of his former friends and acquaintances who were considering violence as an option for dealing with the apostasy from Islam.  An attempt to leave Egypt on a fake passport landed him in prison, where he languished for fifteen years before miraculously being let out.  Like the conversion story, the story of Tito Momen getting out of prison showed that God loves us, cares about us, and is involved in the details of our lives.

The book was, as I expected, incredibly interesting.  I know relatively little about the part of the world in which these events were set, so learning about them was neat.  Momen’s conversion story was, of course, incredible and displayed an incredible about of faith and humility.  His is one of those stories that makes a person think something like, “If this guy could go through all that he did, of course I can get through my middling problems.”  It’s an inspiring story that held my attention throughout the book.  The only thing I think could’ve been improved on was that his life story was told in decent detail, but maybe there could’ve been a little more detail given to his conversion to Mormonism.  I realize that it’s a deeply personal thing and that the impressions, thoughts, and feelings we have as we seek answers to our earnest prayers are personal and hard to describe.  Still, they are real, and there are events and thoughts associated with them that would be of interest.  It would firmly be rated PG-13 were it a movie, but it all accurately depicts life in North Africa and the Middle East.  I’d recommend the book as one of general human interest and religious interest that I really enjoyed.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bosnia: A Short History

Eastern Europe is, in general, a fascinating part of our world.  There are many reasons for this, ranging from greasy, tasty street food to dilapidated concrete housing blocks, as well as the contrasts and conflicts such as earthy traditionalism coupled with rich and vibrant cultures that have produced many world-class authors, artists, and musicians that are embedded in the cultures of the peoples of Eastern Europe.  It seems that conflict, in one form or another, has also been a fairly stable part of a history otherwise riddled with instability thanks to imperial conquest, religious disputations, and the natural result of a mixing of conflicting cultural values because of the region’s geographical location between the East and West.  The countries of the former Yugoslavia all, to one level or another, suffer from these divisions and contradictions.  Bosnia and Herzegovina may be at the forefront when it comes to so many opposing ideas, views, and cultures shoved into one country’s borders.  The Balkans’ similarities to the Caucasus have intrigued me for a while, so learning more about the history of the Bosnian people seemed like a natural fit for my curiosities.

Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm (ISBN: 0-8147-5561-5) explains just who the Bosnians are and who they have been throughout history.  Their history, like those of all the peoples of the Balkan region, is muddled thanks to it being at the crossroads of the East and the West.  Although rarely sought after militarily, both the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs brought it under control at different times.  Before that, though, Bosnia had carved out its own identity seperate from its neighbors, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia.  Bosnian history goes back to the ancient Illyrians and continues through Rome, Byzantium, and various Slavic tribes and rulers.  It continued, to a certain extent, in the short time period between World War I and the introduction of Communism.  It made it through the fall of Yugoslavia and continues its unique fractured and rather dysfunctional way today.  Religion, both Christianity and Islam, as well as earlier, pagan forms of worship, have played a major role in the forming of the Bosnian people.  The history, like much of Eastern Europe, is fragmented and often overly complicated, but it is rich and features a people who present something unique to the world.

Books about obscure topics have a tendency to by dry.  That only applied to this book in the section about the Bosnian Church.  Malcolm decided to dedicate an entire chapter to the church, which, in my opinion, was a debatable choice.  The subject matter was definitely relevant to the book’s overall argument, but there just wasn’t enough material to keep things moving in that section.  One would really have to be a specialist in the field to care enough to get into that chapter, which dragged because of arcane details about an enigmatic at best religious organization.  Other than that one flaw, I thought the book was interesting and presented on a relatively small number of pages a lot of essential information about the region and its people.  Given that the Balkans are such a complex collection of peoples, histories, religions, and modern states, it was quite a feat to get it sorted into coherent chapters and present any kind of argument.  Malcolm tried to make two major arguments.  First, Bosnians were and are a distinct ethnic group in the Balkans.  They are not some kind of off-shoot from the Serbs, Croats, or any other people.  They have a clear and distinct history.  This argument I think he succeeded at making.  Second, he contended that Bosnians have lived in relative peace with their neighbors, the Croats and Serbs, and the modern-day state of affairs, which led to the wars and attendant war crimes after the break-up of Yugoslavia were actually anomalies.  I did not quite agree with his assertion because whatever peace did exist, it seemed to live under a surface taught with tension.  Maybe the Bosnians did not enter into out-and-out warfare with their neighbors on a regular basis, but they certainly did not go out of their way to cooperate or increase connections.  In fact, his drawn-out bit about the Bosnian Church seems to support my idea in that they went for their own church not because of any great theological differences as compared to Orthodoxy or Catholocism, but simply because they preferred isolation from their neighbors, who presented a real and present threat.  The book was informative and makes one think, no matter the conlusions the reader reaches.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Morning Breaks

Russia and the other Slavic countries to which it is closely tied are fascinating places and they are captivating across a wide variety of fields.  Russian history is interesting with its ties to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; Russian politics, whether that be Putin or Stalin or Gorbachev, are intriguing; endless spellbinding tomes have been written about Russian spies, foreign policy, and military affairs; Russian food like pelmeni, bliny, and pirozhki is excellent; and the Russian people are equally engrossing and mind boggling with their mix of hospitality, Oriental-style ways, European sensibilities, and rude coarseness.  If one wants to study a particular angle, it can be done in Russia.  Russia also has a fairly rich religious heritage, the Soviet attempts at state-sponsored or state-enforced atheism notwithstanding.

In The Morning Breaks: Stories of Conversion and Faith in the Former Soviet Union by Howard L. Biddulph (ISBN: 978-1-57345-152-9), one can read about a relatively new chapter in that deep religious history.  President Biddulph was the leader of the first mission in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union (his responsibilities actually started just before the USSR fell).  He describes the miraculous nature of the early missionary work in Ukraine, often incorporating the thoughts and experiences of the first, pioneering Ukrainian Saints.  Some of testimonies of these people, always simple, are very strong.  All the experiences show the loving guidance of a Father in Heaven who wants His children to succeed in all that they undertake.  He talked of the people who made the Church successful in those wild times because of their extreme faith and true willingness to be instruments in the hands of the Almighty.  There were some of the typical-for-Eastern-Europe struggles with infinite layers of bureaucracy that were resolved; there were smaller miracles such as the sun shining through as Ukraine was dedicated for missionary work; and there were the many individualized miracles that took place each and every time a missionary decided to open his mouth one more time or an investigator decided to follow through on a commitment.  After a long period of stagnation and darkness, the Iron Curtain had fallen and the light of the gospel shone through to take its place.

The book was written in a very informal style with many excerpts from President Biddulph’s journals, his wife’s journals, and letters from or interviews with the early Ukrainian Saints.  It was, of course, intriguing for me, a former missionary in the territory of the former Soviet Union, to read about how another one of those countries came to meet the gospel.  Ukraine is fascinating from the standpoint of Church growth because it was opened to missionaries right on the heels of Russia, and is much smaller, but seems to have done much better as they had a stake there first and a temple, too.  I liked the stories, a couple of them similar to things I experienced first hand.  Missions are something it’s easy to wax nostalgic about, but they’re also something that has the power to rekindle the desires for righteousness and obedience to God’s law that were so strong while serving, and that is probably the best part of the book.

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