With this editorial, Arab News gives two cheers for the recent decision to allow Internet domain names to be issued in non-Latin alphabets. While this will allow countries like Saudi Arabia to issue domains in the Arabic script, the piece suggests that this is more a cultural feel-good exercise than one with much practical effect. English, the piece argues, and its Latin alphabet are dominant in the world and will continue to grow. English is both supplementing native languages and replacing them and there’s no turning back.

Editorial: Making Net global

Yesterday’s decision by the Internet regulators to allow domain names in characters other than Latin ones is a major shot in the arm for cultural equality. Most people in the world do not speak languages written in the Latin script. Of the 1.6 billion Internet users worldwide (a quarter of the world’s population), more than half use languages written in other scripts. There are billions more as yet without access to a computer and the Internet, who largely live in Africa and Asia who likewise do not speak a language which uses Latin characters. They are potential users. The Internet, as the prime means of communication and information exchange alongside television and telephone, must be fully accessible to them. Enabling users to key in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Cyrillic or whatever scripts they use to access their chosen websites will show that all languages and cultures are regarded as equal in the Internet age. The Internet becomes truly global.

Whether increasing domain name characters from 30 to over 100,000 makes a great deal of practical difference is another matter.

There’s something the piece does not discuss that I think important. While the use of native scripts will certainly make it easier for people using those scripts to use the Internet, it would also make sites using those scripts all but invisible to those using other scripts. Some people have multi-lingual keyboards and some software permits one to switch languages on the fly. But the fact is that most people do not know other alphabets. If I had to know Gujarati in order to search websites in Gujarat, it wouldn’t happen. The same with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or dozens of other languages.

I know I was lucky to be born into an English-speaking culture; that saved me from having to learn English as a second language. The fact is, though, that English, in all its varieties, is the most spoken language on the planet. Websites that ignore that immediately cut themselves off from the majority of the globe’s population. That might make sense if a website is strictly local. It does not make sense if one is to make maximal use of the Internet.

October:31:2009 - 08:48 | Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Permalink

The US trade magazine Journal of Commerce’s spinoff publication, ‘Breakbulk’ (concerned with shipping of non-containerized goods) runs a piece on Saudi Arabia’s growing need for electricity. It reports that $100 billion will be invested in both production and distribution of electricity over the next 18 years. The article discusses current energy production and notes that a 20- to 30-Megawatt solar power plant is under discussion.

Saudi Electricity to Invest $100 Billion in Power Projects Through 2018

BANGALORE, INDIA–October 29, 2009–Researched by Industrial Info Resources (Sugar Land, Texas)–State-owned Saudi Electricity Company, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has announced plans to invest $20 billion to generate more than 10,000 megawatts of power through six independent power producing projects. SEC’s plans also include an addition of 20,000 MW of power through 2018, and the company intends to invest an additional $80 billion to achieve this target. Of the total planned investment of $100 billion, about $46 billion will be used to generate power, $30 billion will be used for transmission, and $20 billion will be used for distribution.

From 2002 to 2008, the growth of the oil sector provided a huge boost to the economy of Saudi Arabia. Today, however, the nation is facing a growing demand for power as it invests in heavy industry and infrastructure projects in an effort to move away from an economy that is largely based on oil revenues.

The IPP projects that are scheduled for completion between 2013 and 2021 include the 1,000-MW plant at Dheba, the 2,000-MW Qurayyah plant, the 1,200-MW Rabigh plant, the 2,520-MW plant at Ras Azzour, the 2,000-MW plant at Riyadh, and the 800-MW plant at Shuqaiq. Contracts for all the projects are expected to be awarded between 2010 and 2017.

According to Amer al-Swaha, head of the IPP program, five consortiums are gearing up to bid for the 2,000-MW Riyadh combined-cycle power project.

October:31:2009 - 08:33 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

There was a flap last week when it appeared that the US would agree to an international treaty outlawing ‘blasphemous’ speech. That seemed to be rolled back by statements from the US State Dept. that noted such laws would restrict free speech.

Some observers are not confident that the ‘roll back’ was neither sufficient nor meant to be taken seriously. Case in point is Stuart Taylor, Jr, writing in National Journal Magazine, a conservative political journal:

Troubling Signals On Free Speech
In his eagerness to please international opinion, President Obama has taken a small but significant step toward censoring free speech
Stuart Taylor, Jr

It was nice to hear Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton say on October 26, “I strongly disagree” with Islamic countries seeking to censor free speech worldwide by making defamation of religion a crime under international law.

But watch what the Obama administration does, not just what it says. I’m not talking about its attacks on Fox News. I’m talking about a little-publicized October 2 resolution in which Clinton’s own State Department joined Islamic nations in adopting language all-too-friendly to censoring speech that some religions and races find offensive.

The ambiguously worded United Nations Human Rights Council resolution could plausibly be read as encouraging or even obliging the U.S. to make it a crime to engage in hate speech, or, perhaps, in mere “negative racial and religious stereotyping.” This despite decades of First Amendment case law protecting such speech.

To be sure, the provisions to which I refer were a compromise, stopping short of the flat ban on defamation of religion sought by Islamic nations, and they could also be construed more narrowly and innocuously. It all depends on who does the construing.

Is it “negative stereotyping” to say that the world’s most dangerous terrorists are Islamists, for example? Many would say yes.

On the eponymous Volokh Conspiracy law blog, Eugene Volokh, professor of Constitutional law at UCLA and expert on the First and Second Amendments, believes that Stuart is essentially correct in his reading of recent events. Volokh briefly discusses Stuart’s piece and raises the question of how the US government should reply to a request/demand that intolerant speech be criminalized. He offers several possible answers—many informed by a certain political cynicism—and leaves it to his readers to bash it out in the comments.

The cynicism may be un peu de trop, but the agreement of the US government to limitations on free speech is troubling. In my view, religion cannot be carved out as an exclusionary zone where the freedoms to think and say what one believes become criminal. States simply should not have the power to punish anyone for what he thinks or what he says, with the narrowest of exceptions only. Religion is not a narrow exception.

Some might argue that this is ‘cultural imperialism’, insisting that a Western value, free speech, be imposed on cultures that give lesser value to that freedom. Perhaps it is. I would argue that the most expansive reading of a freedom is categorically better than a narrow reading, no matter which culture originates it. Without the freedom to think and speak, no other freedom can be said to truly exist, and that includes religious freedom. Instead, a human right becomes a gift from government, and that’s too much power for any government or group of governments to wield.

October:31:2009 - 08:22 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink

The New York Times runs a piece on how Saudi Arabia is preparing to confront swine flu in the context of the Haj. The article (here linked to my local newspaper, part of the NYT chain) notes that the Saudi authorities know that they cannot keep swine flu out of the country: Hajjis bring diseases with them; that’s simply a fact. Rather, they will be working to mitigate the spread of disease and hope that the various kinds of flu now prevalent in the world do not mix into something more dangerous.

The article is a good encapsulation of Saudi efforts. It does not, however, mention the pushback from many Saudis on the plans for vaccination. Conspiracy theories about the vaccine have had a truly disruptive effect, if Saudi media are to be believed. No one has yet discussed the effect of those conspiracy theories on pilgrims and whether or not they would avoid vaccination.

Saudis Try to Head Off Swine Flu Fears Before Hajj

Every year, the single largest gathering on the planet is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca: 2.5 million people from 160 countries packed into a small city in Saudi Arabia for five days.

This year, some will be bringing swine flu.

The Saudi authorities, fearing that the hajj could turn their holy city into a petri dish for viral mutations and a hub for spreading a new pandemic wave around the world, are working hard to head that off. They have asked some worshipers, including pregnant women and the elderly, not to make the trip, which is scheduled for the last week of November.

“The hajj is a central ritual of Islam, and our country tries to make it easy for everyone to come,” said Dr. Ziad A. Memish, the country’s assistant deputy minister for preventive medicine. “We’ve said we won’t turn away anyone who arrives at our borders. But we are recommending to other countries whom they should let come.”

Reuters’ ‘Alert Net’ provides a listing of how various countries are restricting travel for Haj.

Also on ‘Alert Net’ is a piece about how the Haj cannot but affect the spread of swine flu:

Health experts say haj pilgrims risk H1N1 flu wave

October:30:2009 - 08:05 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Saudi media—among others—remains a target for those who seek to prohibit blasphemy, according to this Arab News story. It reports that Al-Arabiya TV (owned by the same conglomerate that owns Arab News and Asharq Alawsat) is being sued for broadcasting something that someone found to be blasphemous. In typically opaque reporting, the story conveys some information but not nearly enough to figure out just what offended whom. Perhaps the paper is concerned that reporting anything specific would lead to legal complaints about its own story. That is perhaps logical, but it demonstrates how severely blasphemy laws chill freedom of expression and of the press.

The story also carries further information on the case of Rozanna al-Yami, the female journalist who was sentenced to lashings and then pardoned by the King. Apparently, she at one time claimed to not be a journalist, so the court felt free to impose its sentence. Frankly, if someone is working for a media enterprise, they should be considered a journalist for nearly all purposes, in my opinion.

Al Arabiya TV sued for ‘blasphemy’
Muhammad Humaidan I Arab News

JEDDAH: A case has been filed against the popular news channel, Al Arabiya, at the summary court in Jeddah for allegedly making fun of Islam, said Muhammad Mirdad, a judge at the court.

Mirdad said Abdullah Al-Othaim, the chief judge at the court, had received the case, which has been lodged by a group of citizens. The court then transferred the case to the justice minister in order for him to pass it on to the Ministry of Culture and Information.

The litigants have also presented evidence in the form of pictures and audio recording to support their case. They allege the channel has ridiculed God, the Last Prophet (peace be upon him), Angel Gabriel and the Sayings of the Prophet.

October:29:2009 - 09:09 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Munasaha’ program is designed to get at, if not the roots, then at least the sprouts of terrorism in the country. It looks into the content of sermons, lectures, and religious gatherings in order to persuade people that extremism is not the way to move forward. As Saudi Gazette/Okaz report, the program combines the wisdom of a range of academics and experts in Shariah law to explain the ‘proper principles of Shariah law’ and includes women as advisors. The program travels to areas targeted by the government due to their recent experiences and incidents of terror-related extremism.

Anti-terrorism advisory programs tour identified areas
Naeem Tameem Al-Hakim

JEDDAH – Officials from the anti-terrorism advisory “Munasaha” program have conducted a two-week course at numerous centers in Al-Khorma, east of Taif, to address “deviant thought”.

Coordinator for the Munasaha Committee and Executive President of the Enlightenment Program Saeed Al-Wadi said the focus of the program was Friday sermons, lectures and religious gatherings and competitions held at mosques, colleges and schools, and involved along with Munasaha officials 18 professors of sociology, psychology and Shariah Law.

October:29:2009 - 08:55 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

It appears that the Saudi government has not yet made up its mind whether pilgrims taking part in this year’s Haj will be required to have had swine flu vaccination prior to arrival in the country. With a global delay in the production of vaccine, the Saudis are waiting to see if such a plan is even feasible, Arab News reports. The article notes that vaccinations against meningitis are already required; those arriving from countries in which several other diseases, like yellow fever, are endemic are generally required to show proof of vaccination as well. Arab News provides a handy list of health requirements for entry into the country to perform Haj.

Confusion over H1N1 vaccine still prevails
Muhammad Rasooldeen I Arab News

RIYADH: The Ministry of Health has still not announced whether local Haj pilgrims need to take the H1N1 vaccine before proceeding for the annual pilgrimage.

There is still confusion over whether a H1N1 vaccination is necessary. According to Haj permit application forms issued by the Passport Department, prospective pilgrims are asked to submit two vaccination certificates — one for meningitis and a second one which has been left blank.

Dr. Khalid Al-Mirghalani, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, said the new H1N1 vaccine is still to arrive and, as a result, it has still not been decided whether to make it necessary or not.

Whatever bureaucratic chaos might reign, it’s nothing compared to the intellectual chaos. Sheikh Salih al-Luhaidan/Luhaydan, former Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, says there’s no such thing as swine flu and hauls out an anecdote to ‘prove’ it, as Asharq Alawsat reports. Al-Luhaidan was removed from his position in the Cabinet shuffle earlier this year, apparently for his suggestion that the owners of satellite TV channels broadcasting objectionable material could legally be killed. His view of the world seems to be quite narrow, but he unfortunately still has a large following…

Saudi Cleric Dismisses Existence of Swine Flu
Faisal Al-Dakhil

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat — Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaydan, member of the Senior Ulema Council, recently sparked controversy when he rejected the existence of the 2009-H1N1 Influenza [swine flu] epidemic in a lecture about the “jurisprudence of the patient”.

Sheikh Saleh’s statements prompted the dean of the College of Medicine at the Islamic Imam Muhammad Bin-Saud University who took part in the lecture to respond by asserting that the “epidemic does exist and has been scientifically proven.”

Al-Luhaydan voiced his opinion while taking part in a lecture at Al-Rajihi Mosque in Riyadh after being asked for a ruling on whether a person can pray in his house if he fears going to the mosque as a precaution against being infected by the swine flu.

Sheikh Al-Luhaydan ignored the question and voiced his opinion rejecting the existence of this epidemic. He said in his answer: “I do not know how serious this epidemic is. For example, it did not emerge that funerals during Ramadan were more than last year. On some days, there are two times when we do not pray at funerals at Mecca Mosque so where is this epidemic which the people are talking about?” He then expressed his fear that the epidemic was something to do with commercial matters and this prompted Dr. Khalid Abdul-Ghafar Al Abdul-Rahman, the dean of the College of Medicine at the Islamic Imam Muhammad Bin-Saud University, to respond and stressed that the epidemic exists and has been scientifically proven. In his response to the member of the Senior Ulema Council, he said that what deserves to be examined is that only few cases were recorded in Mecca despite the population density during Ramadan and this is due to God’s care and protection of Kaaba’s visitors.

On a related front, there is apparently some concern about the possibility of spreading swine flu through the act of kissing the Black Stone in the Kaaba, the central structure within the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the point to which all Muslims direct their daily prayers. The stone, said to be of either miraculous origin or possibly a meteorite, has been part of the Kaaba since long before Islam. Kissing it while performing the ritual circumambulation is a popular ritual, but does not form a part of the actual rites of Haj.

Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that the Board of Senior Ulema says it’s easy to handle one’s fears about kissing the stone: If it worries you, just don’t kiss the stone.

‘If worried, don’t kiss black stone’

October:29:2009 - 08:32 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

The cloud of conspiracy theories surrounding swine flu vaccine, is having an effect in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Gazette reports that a majority of parents at international schools in Saudi Arabia are rejecting vaccination for their children. The article cites e-mail and media reports as having caused the reticence. Several of the schools note that they have yet to receive information from the Saudi Ministry of Health on steps they should be taking, but all seem to be relying on better hand-washing as a barrier to spreading the flu virus.

Shahid Ali Khan

RIYADH – An overwhelming majority of parents disapprove of the offer of swine flu vaccinations for their children studying at various international community schools here.

Based on instructions from the Ministry of Health, the International Indian School, Riyadh (IISR), and the Pakistan International School, Riyadh (PISR), which together have an enrollment of around 19,000 students, conducted a survey to determine if parents would approve or disapprove of swine flu vaccine being administered to their children.

Ahmed Imthias, IISR managing committee chairman, said that in a survey that ended last week, 98 percent of parents said that they would not consent to having their children inoculated with the anti-H1N1 vaccine.

Imthias said the school sent a circular to gauge the opinion of parents and found that the parents of only 200 students, which is only two percent of the school’s 10,000 students, expressed their willingness to have their children receive a swine flu vaccination.

The school has yet to notify the Health Ministry about the poor response, he said, adding that during the survey parents raised several questions with regards to the safety of the swine flu vaccine.

A member of the Saudi Board of Senior Ulema has criticized the ‘rumor mongering’ about the vaccine, Saudi Gazette/Okaz report separately. The fear has reached into the institutions responsible for the ritual washing of the dead before burial, with some in Taif refusing to wash the bodies of those who have died of swine flu. The government employees who hold that job are reminded that it is obligatory that they perform their tasks.

Scholar slates ‘rumor-mongering’; washers must wash
Naeem Tamim Al-Hakim and Muhammed Al-Moaid

JEDDAH/NAJRAN – A member of the Board of Senior Ulema has condemned persons who circulate rumors that the swine flu vaccine is unsafe, saying that they must “provide proof or scientific research” to support their claims which contradict the results of tests conducted by official authorities.

Ali Abbas Al-Hakami, who is also a member of the Supreme Judicial Council, said that the “excessive gossip” concerning swine flu had led to “fact getting confused with fiction”.

October:28:2009 - 08:15 | Comments & Trackbacks (15) | Permalink

The complicated story of Mazen Abdul Jawad, who went on LBC TV and bragged about his sexual exploits, continues to echo.

Writing in Arab News, Maha Akeel discusses the affront Abdul Jawad created when he ill-advisedly decided to go on the program ‘Bold Red Line’. She castigates him for being dumb, but also lays into Saudi society for being too ready to blame the critics of that society and its less-than-salubrious practices. She doesn’t spare LBC, either, suggesting that it should have known better and it should have at least hidden Abdul Jawad’s face and name.

Much of the criticism of Abdul Jawad’s behavior really comes down to a matter of good taste and polite behavior. Those are things that have consequence, of course, but should they be a matter for the courts? The French have the expression, ‘Chacun à son goût‘; Anglophones have ‘There’s no accounting for taste.’ I’m sure Arabic has a similar expression, though I can’t recall it.

Abdul Jawad scandalized Saudi society by bringing into the open behaviors that it would rather not know about. That throws us into another batch of idioms, starting with ‘Ignorance is bliss’ and extending to the metaphor of an ostrich with its head in the sand. If this kind of behavior is going on in the Kingdom—and clearly it is—then it is not solved by shooting the messenger, yet another idiom.

Bragging about sex and respecting social norms
Maha Akeel | Arab News

Before foreigners come to work or visit this country they are told to respect the Kingdom’s religious and social traditions such as the conservative dress code pertaining to women, and the prohibition on dating, talking or even looking at women. Such restrictions on interacting with Saudi women — even at the most innocent, casual and professional levels — naturally arouse the foreign media’s interest and curiosity about everything in Saudi society. Our own insistence that we are a “unique” society and have a “special” standing and that we consider ourselves religiously and morally above other Muslim societies tweaks that curiosity even more to the extent of perhaps taking it as a challenge to expose the “other face” of our society. It is therefore not surprising to see a large amount of programs on Arab satellite channels (most of which are fully or partially owned by Saudi investors) that focus on Saudi society and address sensitive or taboo issues such as harassment, all types of abuse, and sexual escapades as if they are only found in our society. These issues attract a wide audience that includes Saudis and non-Saudis (i.e. more advertising money), thus feeding the frenzy to “uncover” more Saudi secrets.

It appears that the case has served a useful purpose, though. Minister of Culture & Information Abdulaziz Khoja has asserted his ministry’s primacy in dealing with issues of the media. It was he, according to press reports, who went to the King to have the sentences levied on Rozanna al-Yami and another female journalist, Iman Rajab, waived. Journalists are now asking that the same clemency be applied to the cameraman who was sentenced to several months in jail. They’d also like to see the Disputes Committee for Publications, which by royal decree has oversight of all media complaints, take stronger and quicker command of its brief.

Al-Yami’s pardon sparks call to review all media-related cases
Muhammad Humaidan | Arab News

JEDDAH: Following the king’s pardon for a Saudi woman journalist for her role in a controversial television program about a man’s sexual exploits, the lawyer representing the chief defendant in the case has demanded the Ministry of Culture and Information review its stance on all media-related cases.

On Monday, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah waived the sentence of 60 lashes handed down to Rozanna Al-Yami for her role in the LBC show, “Bold Red Lines,” in which Mazen Abdul Jawad bragged about his sexual adventures.

“I request the ministry to intervene in the case of Omar Farouk Felamban, 36, a member of the Saudi Journalists Association who is in a Saudi jail. He should be included in the royal pardon. He is an employee of the ministry and was working as a photographer for Saudi Television,” said lawyer Suleiman Al-Jumaie.

“I request that any case related to media persons be examined by the Disputes Committee for Publications, an arm of the Ministry of Culture and Information. Journalists are unhappy over the recent trial of journalists by a court that has no jurisdiction over them,” he added.

In most of the world, Abdul Jawad’s TV appearance would have been dismissed as tacky and he would have been dismissed as an idiot, perhaps using stronger words. He challenged societal norms in Saudi Arabia. Yet another idiom comes to mind, harkening back to 19th C. France: Eclater les bourgeoisie, to upset the middle class and its values. That sometimes provides a longer term social benefit, but at the cost of society’s anger and here, it’s retribution.

October:28:2009 - 07:57 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette reports that a public opinion survey in Saudi Arabia strongly approves of the role of ‘National Dialogue’. The King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue commissioned a survey to see what the public thought of it and its mission and is rather pleased with the results.

The article mentions that the Center will be building a ‘three-tower’ headquarters complex in Riyadh. I’m not sure that’s really necessary. That money could be better spent in commissioning, publishing, and distributing media explaining the virtues and utility of dialogue, I believe. While the Center and its activities have reached hundreds of thousands of Saudis, there are over 16 million Saudis. Many of those millions could use an awakening into the realities of the globe in this 21st C.

Natl. Dialogue Center wins majority Saudi approval
Mohamed Al-Ghamdi

RIYADH – An overwhelming majority of Saudis surveyed in the Kingdom approve of the role the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue has been playing in promoting the culture of dialogue in Saudi society.

A team of social science research scholars from a number of universities in the Kingdom conducted the study that revealed 78 percent of Saudis knew about the center, established some five years ago on the directives of King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Around 21.8 percent said they did not know about the center, the study revealed.

October:27:2009 - 10:28 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

With more than 20 universities and 300 colleges, Saudi Arabia is finally getting around to implementing a plan for quality assurance in education. It is requiring post-secondary schools to obtain accreditation from a nation-wide organization, the National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment, reports Arab News. The article does not get into what measures will be used to assess the quality of education, unfortunately.

Universities face disqualification over academic standards
Hassna’a Mokhtar | Arab News

JEDDAH: The secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s academic assessment body warned universities lacking appropriate quality certification could lose their license and government funding in the future, local newspapers reported on Monday.

Abdullah Al-Musallam of the National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment (NCAAA) confirmed three universities had already applied to receive the quality certification.

They are the King Saud University in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah and Taibah University in Madinah. Al-Musallam said quality standards are determined according to each university’s objectives.

October:27:2009 - 10:21 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Last week, it appeared that the US government was going along with the creation of international laws proscribing blasphemy. Today, the matter is cleared up (at least for some) with Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks as she introduced the annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The Washington Post reports:

Clinton speaks against anti-defamation laws
Islamic countries seek to restrict freedom to criticize religions
William Wan

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized on Monday an attempt by Islamic countries to prohibit defamation of religions, saying such policies would restrict free speech.

“Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies. . . . I strongly disagree,” Clinton said. “The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions.”

While unnamed in Clinton’s speech, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic nations, has been pushing hard for the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt resolutions that broadly bar the defamation of religion. The effort has raised concerns that such resolutions could be used to justify crackdowns on free speech in Muslim countries.

Clinton made her comments while unveiling the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom.

October:27:2009 - 10:09 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink
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