Saturday, December 29, 2007

The two Johns

They couldn’t be more dissimilar in their personal styles, the way they relate to and connect with people, their ages and the states they’re from. But former Sen. John Edwards, fighting strongly in Iowa in the 2008 race, and Sen. John Kerry, veteran of the 2004 campaign, may well be joined at the political hip in one meaningful respect: an ability to tough it out, to emerge Lazarus-like from the crypt of low expectations by the public and, especially, the press.

Americans are still deep down in love with the underdog story, and the arc of Edwards’ campaign has been one that Americans have embraced before. Largely written off last summer in a crowded field — and overlooked by a media smitten with the rock-star incandescence of Barack Obama — Edwards has been steadily building momentum (the proverbial “big mo”) and now the former North Carolina senator contends for, at least, a strong second in the Iowa caucuses set to start on Thursday.

John Kerry took the much the same route to the nomination in 2004. For months Kerry languished in the weeds, plagued by single-digit results in the polls. But the results of the Iowa caucuses that year vaulted the Massachusetts senator out of the Democratic pack, and made him the new front-runner in a field about as crowded as the current one.

And right now Edwards is a literal whisker behind or ahead of Obama in the eleventh-hour polling in Iowa, depending on which poll you read — and always well within the margin of error. Edwards, a famed trial lawyer, has been making what he’s called his “closing argument” in recent weeks.

“We have to stop the corporate greed that’s killing the middle class in America,” Edwards told a receptive audience Friday at the Colt Drum & Bugle Corps Center in Dubuque. “[I]f we elect another president appointed by the status quo — from either party — the middle class will fall further behind and our children will pay the price.”

Edwards “these are the stakes”-style rhetoric has all the high drama and stark either/or scenario of a strong summation in court; what’s as strong as Edwards’ message is this way he sends that message: in the context of a courtroom, with the citizens of Iowa empowered as nothing less than jurors.

Whether Edwards convincingly pulls off the Jimmy Stewart role — whether or not Iowans believe him and in him enough to give him a first unassailable campaign victory — remains to be seen, probably late Thursday. But the big mo is definitely with him, maybe enough to get him at least two cheers for the underdog. Or more.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 97 percent solution

Twas the day after Christmas and Paris Whitney Hilton, heir to the hotelier fortune that bears her name, did what millions of other Americans did: Go shopping. A bargain hunter like the rest of us, the hotel heiress went in search of bargains (only she went to Lisa Klein in West Hollywood, one of the high-end boutiques she frequents). For Paris, however, the mag stripes on the back of her credit cards may be holding different data before much longer. This Christmas may be the last of the sort of wonderful life she’s grown accustomed to. Things are changing at the House of Hilton.

Twas also the day after Christmas that Barron Hilton, chairman of the Conrad Hilton Foundation and an earlier heir to the hotel chain that bears his name, announced his decision to donate 97 percent of his fortune, currently estimated at $2.3 billion, to charity. Reuters reported the news on Wednesday.

In a statement, the foundation said that Barron Hilton, son of the founder, intends “to contribute 97 percent of his entire net worth, estimated today at $2.3 billion, including the created trusts, at whatever value it is at the time of his passing.”

Reuters reported that the mission of the foundation is to back ventures that provide clean water in Africa, education for blind children and housing for the mentally ill. Based on the language of Conrad Hilton’s will, job one is “to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute.” The foundation assets will swell to about $4.5 billion under the terms of Barron Hilton’s plans announced Wednesday.

“Paris Hilton was not immediately available for comment on her grandfather’s plans for his fortune,” Reuters reported, high up in the story.

Now, we’re not ordinarily big on schadenfreude. We just won’t go there. But there’s no escaping the sense of poetic justice at work. One’s tempted to cast for a moment Paris Hilton in a variation of the role of Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” jilted from her inheritance by her father, favoring her brothers. Or something from the start of “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” But we might have seen this coming.

Paris has done more than shop in recent years. In 2003, about the time when most of us knew she was even alive, Paris Hilton Gained Notoriety when a videotape of her and her boyfriend having sex was released on the Internet.

Reuters neatly conflated the next four years: “She parlayed her notoriety, fueled by tabloid headlines about her partying lifestyle, into a celebrity career that has included a reality television show, a book, a music album, and film roles. Then this year she spent more than three weeks in jail for violating probation in a drunk-driving case.”

That smartly-condensed nutshell embraces the “career” of the most celebrated person in popular culture to be, by and large, famous for being famous and nothing more. Paris Hilton has, by coincidence and design, become the symbol of a certain vulgar aridity in popular culture, the literal expression of a by-the-numbers ethos of ascension to those fifteen minutes of fame. Like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears -- the two other tragic musketeers of pop culture -- she’s that painfully irresistible magnet, that train wreck you can’t help but look at as you drive down the highway.

Remember what happened last November? At a nightclub in Vegas promoting her own record release? Singer Joshua Radin did, and put it on his MySpace page. “Paris, who had been swilling straight vodka from [a] Grey Goose bottle for hours, gets up on stage, has the people in charge throw her ‘record’ on the house stereo for her to lip sync two of her songs,” writes Radin. “She gets up on the stage, pukes, leaves. . . I find the music business charming.”

Well, Granddad apparently didn’t. Reuters reported that Jerry Oppenheimer, author of the 2006 book “House of Hilton,” said Barron Hilton “was embarrassed by the behavior of his socialite granddaughter and believes it has sullied the family name.”

That’s not hot.

What happens next? In the short term, nothing. Paris Hilton still stays at any Hilton Hotel on this planet for free. The service on her diamond-encrusted Vertu cell won’t be cut off (hell, her mobile carrier is probably paying her). With her investments (assuming she's made any) and lavish event appearance fees, she won’t be serving you your Chicken Club at the Wendy’s drive-thru window anytime soon.

But still, it’s got to be some kind of wake-up call. At one level or another, Paris Hilton got a taste of mortality the day after Christmas. Just like the rest of us fighting subprime mortgages, insane gas prices and a nagging sense of disquiet in spite of the Christmas lights. And still very unlike the rest of us. Grandpa’s announcement won’t be exactly a change to the simple life – 3 percent of $2.3 billion is still $69 million. But it’s a far cry from the stellar money she no doubt envisioned.

Welcome back, Paris. Welcome back to a place a few decimal points closer to our wonderful life.
Top image: Kevin Mazur. Bottom image: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tancredo TKO

For months now, pundits and pol-watchers have been quietly marveling at the resilience of the presidential campaign of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Republican congressman whose one-issue platform – ending illegal immigration – seemed to defy political gravity and the laws of politics that dictate the need for candidates to address a wide range of issues.

Like the audience at a professional prize fight, the press and observers asked themselves the same question you’d ask watching a fighter getting his brains beaten out round after round, a man who manages to stay on his feet even as the blood streams into the eyes he needs to see: “What the hell’s holding him up?”

We don’t have to ask that question anymore. Tancredo more or less quietly ended his quest for the presidency on Thursday, his 62nd birthday, narrowing the still-crowded GOP field by one (depending on whether you count the phantom campaign of Alan Keyes, a political nonentity this season if there ever was one).

Tancredo’s quit statement is a leitmotiv of the campaigner making an early exit: We made the points we had to make, we elevated the issue of [insert issue here] to a level of importance that the other candidates ignored … our work is done here.

Sure enough: On Tancredo’s Web site, the former candidate says that “earlier this year when I feared that the issue would not be championed by any of the top candidates I threw my hat in the ring. It was the only way I could be certain that the candidates would be forced to take a stand. … we have succeeded beyond my most optimistic expectations of a year ago.”

“We have come so far together, and through our efforts we have made a stunning and, I believe, permanent impact on the debate over securing our borders and preserving our nation.”

Tancredo, a bantamweight contender at best, might well have said “no mas, no mas” when he hung ‘em up, like Roberto Duran did, but that would have been contrary to the rabidly xenophobic spirit of his signature issue, and the weaponized passions of so many of his followers: “English only, please!”

It’s that spirit that led candidate Tancredo to actively try to bully U.S. immigration officials into deporting Jesus Apodaca, an honors student in his home state, because of Apodaca’s illegal status. The Immigration and Naturalization Service promised Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell it would not move against Apodaca (GPA 3.9!) until Congress weighed the case, the Denver Post reported in September.

There are at least three good reasons why Tancredo made an early exit beyond the self-serving statement of having completed his educational mission of raising the issue of illegal immigration to a fever pitch.

First and most obvious: Tancredo ran out of cash, the mother’s milk and gasoline of American presidential politics. Tancredo consistently underperformed against the other candidates on fundraising, and made little or no headway in the polls beyond momentary surges pegged as much to his appearances in the debates as anything else.

Second, Tancredo ran out of momentum. The singular energy he brought to the illegal-immigration debate began to dissipate. Ironically enough, Tancredo’s campaign lost power the more widely the immigration issue became the substance of the other campaigns. His lock on the topic was more diffused, and less particular to him, as other more viable candidates starting talking about it. Over time, there was increasingly less of a reason for Tancredo’s being on the campaign trail at all.

Last, Tancredo’s Republican colleagues ran out of patience. There’s no escaping the polarizing high negatives his campaign has generated among Americans across the board. Now factor in the damage Tancredo has done to the marginal efforts to rehumanize the Republican Party for millions of Latino voters predisposed to vote against the GOP [See "For Latinos, the gusano turns"]. Something that was already an uphill GOP battle before Tancredo’s insurgent campaign even started became an effort Sisyphus would have looked forward to. Tancredo was beginning to do more damage to the Republicans than the Democrats. (Maybe this was quietly communicated to the candidate by the party leadership. Ya think?)

Tancredo’s vitriolic proposals -- building a wall on the southern U.S. border, deporting all illegal residents at an estimated cost of $200 billion -- deepened a rift between the Republicans and the Latino bloc that, until recent years, could be counted on for support in the voting booth. That was then. Today? No mas.

But even in defeat, this fighter will have people shouting his name at ringside. For all his vicious looniness, Tancredo leaves ‘em screaming.

Roberto Lovato, writing on AlterNet, understands: “Viewed from the vantage point of recent political history, Tancredo's wild and often wacky political journey has taken him from being a relatively unknown young David to become a more seasoned leader, a King David of immigration politics who will continue to exercise power far beyond the humbler days when he was a lone voice crying in the anti-immigrant wilderness of the GOP. …

“While Republican candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary states will no longer find themselves in a campaign in which they ‘try to out-Tancredo Tancredo,’ political ads and debate sound bites chock full of ‘get-tough on immigrants’ rhetoric may well prevail beyond the primaries. That Tancredo has helped turn mainstream what was formerly right-wing fringe is clear …”

Tancredo lost this bout in a TKO: While the fighter was still upright when he threw in the towel, he was battered by the exigencies of American politics, and by misinterpreting the sheer weight of the populism he’d been counting on. With Americans only giving him lip service on the immigration issue, and not advancing his fortunes either with more robust fundraising or a rise in the opinion polls over the 11 months of his campaign, Tancredo has discovered (however reluctant he is to admit it) just how narrow his base of support really was.

For his supporters, it’s back to the drawing board to find a more viable candidate who can champion the immigration issue. For his detractors, it’s an early Christmas present, one they’d no doubt accept with a parting shot: Gracias, Tomas. No permita el golpe de puerta usted en el asno en su salida.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

“Gordon Gekko, NBC News”

The New Voice of NBC News! NBC News anchor Brian Williams teased viewers with it the week before. And tonight’s broadcast featured the debut of a voice Williams said we’d recognize. Sure enough, popping up just over the John Williams theme song, you heard it: “From NBC world headquarters in New York, this is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.”

But this wasn’t the clarion voice of a veteran newsman or statesman or former president. This was the voice of a detective with an obsession. This was the voice of Gordon Gekko, the unscrupulous financier who launched a thousand subordinated-debt transactions in "Wall Street." This was the voice of Michael Douglas.

It was hard to wrap the mind around it, at first. In some ways it still is. And it signals a change for NBC News, though the meaning of that change – in reporting, public perception, communication style — is anyone’s guess.

We might have guessed something was up when, weeks earlier, Brian Williams made a big deal on the air about the new Nightly News set, acting for anything like a kid who couldn’t wait for Christmas to open the presents. That set was unveiled on a Monday, and included a monstrously high-tech desk, a beast of blue and brushed silver ready for double duty on the set of “Star Trek IX: Wrath of the Anchorman.”

Then there was his better-than-expected appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” which included a skit on changes to the Nightly News opening. Talk about foreshadowing.

You can hardly blame Douglas. It wouldn’t be the first time a network has linked its reputation to the sound of a voice. For years you couldn’t find daylight between CNN and the voice of James Earl Jones in the public mind. Douglas had the opportunity to hitch his voice’s wagon to something that is, finally, a service rather than a product. The information and entertainment that are at the core of NBC’s identity dovetail nicely with Douglas’ public persona.

It’s not such a stretch as, say, Gene Hackman’s longtime role as the voice of Lowe’s Home Improvement and Oppenheimer Funds, or Kevin Spacey representing the Honda Accord, or Jeff Bridges moving Duracell batteries (a year or so after a stint as the voice of Weyerhauser).

That’s the way NBC rolls. Score one for Douglas. But still. With the rollout of NBC’s new voice, we’re unconsciously invited to make a comparison between the signal broadcast television journalist of our time famed for a perfect signature line – “And that’s the way it is” — and an Oscar-winning actor-producer just as famous for another, more unfortunate avatar of the culture: “Greed is good.”

You wonder if NBC brass thought of that.

Williams apparently appealed to the actor's sense of history. "I appealed to Michael's sense of romance and sentimentality and his love of the industry," Williams told USA Today on Tuesday. "I called him and said, 'On top of all you've done as an actor, producer and Academy Award winner, this will mean a small slice of immortality in our industry. It also means wherever you are on Earth, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, you'll know your voice is on the air.'"

Clearly, at NBC … things have changed. The torch has been passed to a new generation of network executives smudging the already-blurry line between journalism and entertainment. “We’re in the boredom-killing business!” fictional network anchor Howard Beale screamed from the rooftops in “Network,” more than 30 years ago. Maybe Beale (or more properly “Network” author Paddy Chayefsky) was right.

Meanwhile, Rosie O’Donnell is said to be working on a little something for ABC.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Pop culture and politics hooked up again yesterday. It was just one of them things, a short-term fling much like others in the past. But when Oprah Winfrey appeared at campaign events for Barack Obama in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, it was more than a media marriage of convenience. In her first pitch for a candidate, Oprah put her vast marketing and publicity machine at the disposal of a presidential aspirant -- effectively making herself, however briefly, an arm of the campaign, the first credible bid by an African American for the White House.

The Oprahbama show kicked off Dec. 8 in Iowa, where 18,000 people attended an electric rally at the U.S. Cellular Center in Des Moines. "For the very first time in my life, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out for the man who I believe has a new vision for America," said Oprah, who announced her support for the Obama campaign in May -- support backed up with a $3 million fundraising effort in September.

The next day Oprahbama hit South Carolina, with a tumultuous rally at William Bryce Football Stadium in Columbia. "For the first time, I'm stepping out of my pew because I've been inspired," Winfrey said. "I've been inspired to believe that a new vision is possible for America. Dr King dreamed the dream. But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality," she told the crowd of -- believe it -- about 30,000 people at the site, a second location for the rally after demand for tickets outstripped available space at the first venue choice.

Later on Sunday, about 8,000 people filled about half of the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., for a taste of the rock & roll-style whistlestop. "Ain't you tired of the old way of politics?" Winfrey asked. "Yes!" the crowd roared back.

Whether this rapid-fire exercise in campaign appearances was successful depends, of course, on perspective. It beat the hell out of the star power summoned by a campaign stop by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who appeared with her mother and her daughter, Chelsea -- stars of lesser magnitude.

And Oprah is a goddess of daytime TV, and most popular among white women older than 55; they comprise 40 percent of her audience, according to Nielsen Media Research. Of her 7.6 million daily viewers, 78 percent are white and 18 percent are black, Nielsen found. It's perfectly conceivable that some of Oprah's downhome, accessible luster may well rub off on a candidate who, despite his current broadening appeal, still has a wonkish aspect many Americans can't emotionally get their hearts around.

But there's also a question of what's really gained. Mark Halperin of Time magazine makes the not insubstantial point that the embarassment of riches Oprah bestows on Obama amounts to so much coals-to-Newcastle. "Winfrey's endorsement ... helps bring the following four things to Obama: campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds.

"The four things that Obama has on his own in great abundance — without Winfrey's help — are campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds."

Others in the punditocracy have again brought out the E word -- electable -- which long been thrown at the Obama campaign, basically another way of suggesting that Obama is too young, too fresh-faced for the presidency, a man with not enough fat under his chin or enough experience in Washington to be a credible commander-in-chief. This collective wisdom assails Obama, claiming that "the presidency is no place for on-the-job training." Such arguments conveniently disregard the fact that, unless you've done it before, there is no job like the presidency but the presidency -- that in every meaningful respect, on-the-job training for the most powerful job in the world is less an option than a necessity.

With scant weeks left before the first caucuses, and the downtime all the campaigners, Democrat and Republican, have quietly agreed to during the Christmas holidays, it's anyone's guess how Oprahbama will translate to actual votes.

There's a lot of chinpulling left to be done, and endorsements by the various newspapers could make a difference. On Saturday the Des Moines Register editorial board endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton for the caucus.

"Who is best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces — from ending the Iraq war to shoring up America’s middle class to confronting global climate change?" The Register asked.

"The job requires a president who not only understands the changes needed to move the country forward but also possesses the discipline and skill to navigate the reality of the resistant Washington power structure to get things done," the Register said. "That candidate is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Stardust is a fickle thing -- it lands briefly on someone's shoulder before it drifts away in the cultural wind, only to turn up somewhere else on someone else. Obama has been gaining ground steadily on his own; it's open to debate whether the glitter under the wheels of the Obama campaign bus gives him more traction, or takes it away.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The other Hollywood writers

We’ve seen them for more than six weeks now, the famous and the relatively unknown, Hollywood writers and the celebrities they write for, walking the picket lines in Los Angeles, carrying the red-and-black signs announcing the Writers Guild of America’s strike against the major TV and motion picture studios.

The strike has snarled plans for the upcoming TV season, the Golden Globe awards and, possibly, the Oscars (a Hollywood institution that depends on writers like no other).

The last such strike, in 1988, lasted just shy of six months, and cost the U.S. entertainment industry about $500 million, according to Agence France-Presse.

But another storyline has gone pretty much undeveloped, and it’s one that speaks to many of the issues that the writers are striking about: Fairness. Equal treatment. Access to the ability to earn a living. It’s a compelling backstory, but it’s one about the Hollywood writers that we never hear much about.

Before the big walkout started on Nov. 5, the WGA was itself under fire for its treatment of women and minority writers. A May report commissioned by the WGA West found that, except for female TV writers, women and minority writers haven’t made much headway in gaining fair employment and earnings in Hollywood.

The report, subtitled “Whose Stories Are We Telling?” was written by Darnell Hunt, the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, and a professor of sociology at UCLA. Hunt also wrote a report on the same issue for the WGA in 2005.

For minority writers, it’s the same old song: meager progress and slim hopes for advancement in their profession.

“While there have been some noteworthy advances made by women and minority writers on certain measures, in certain sectors, and at certain companies, there are few signs that the overarching industry dominance of white and male writers is easing to any significant degree,” Hunt wrote.

Hunt finds that minority representation in television employment has declined, while representation in feature film production has remained flat.

"More than 30% of the American population is nonwhite, yet writers of color continue to account for less than 10% of employed television writers," said Hunt, in the report executive summary. "These numbers will likely get worse before they get better because of the recent merger of UPN and the WB into the new CW network, which resulted in the cancellation of several minority-themed situation comedies that employed a disproportionate share of minority television writers.

"The situation is grimmer in film," he added, "where the minority share of employment has been stuck at 6% for years."

There’s less than welcome news for older writers as well. “{T]he employment share for the largest group of older writers has remained flat in recent years, and older writers are significantly underrepresented on television show staffs, particularly at the major networks,” Hunt writes in the report.

"This year's report has a familiar ring to it," WGA president Patric Verrone wrote in the introduction. "While there have been some advances made by women and minorities in some sectors, white male writers continue to be a disproportionately dominant portion of the writing work force."

“For minority writers, past trends showing gains have either slowed or stopped altogether,” Verrone wrote.

Meanwhile, there’s a good chance of things getting more confrontational between Hollywood creatives and the industry, on this and other employee issues, before they get better. Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, has asked the Writers Guild to make diversity progress a goal in its negotiations. The guild starts talks in July for a new film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) – this while the current strike against the studios continues with no end in sight.

As reported by the Hollywood Reporter, WGAW diversity director Kimberly Myers boiled it all down at a May 8 panel discussion at WGAW headquarters in Los Angeles announcing the report, expressing the situation that’s confronting Hollywood’s writers and American media in general, from newspapers to editorial Web sites, and everything in between: "The stories we tell are only as diverse as the writers who tell them."
Image credit: Replysixty > released to public domain

Saturday, December 8, 2007

For Latinos, the gusano turns

A new poll reports a shift in political attitudes we might have seen coming from a long way off: No doubt because of the corrosive effects of conservative attitudes on illegal immigration, Hispanic American voters are expressing, in double digits, more of a preference for Democrats than Republicans in the next presidential election — eleven months from now.

“The 2007 National Survey of Latinos shows that the gains that the Republican Party had been making this decade in partisan affiliation among Latinos have dissipated in the past year,” said the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

The survey of registered Hispanic voters by Pew found that they favor Democrats by 57 percent to 23 percent. That advantage for the Democrats has widened since July 2006, when the Pew group found a 21-point difference.

It gets worse for the GOP: Pew found that 41 percent of Hispanic voters found the policies of the Bush administration were harmful, compared to 16 percent who found those policies helpful. Forty-one percent said the Democrats were handling the immigration issue more capably, compared to 14 percent who said the same of Republicans.

That’s a shift in voter preference that’s been suspected anecdotally for some time; the new Pew data makes it more than just idle speculation.

What’s to be seen is how it translates to actual turnout. An earlier study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while Hispanics accounted for half the nation's population growth between the 2000 and 2004 elections, they accounted for just one-tenth of the increase in the votes cast.

The more recent Pew survey suggests that historical non-appearance at the polls is likely to change – powered in no small part by the rising attention to the immigration issue as championed by Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo in his divisive and xenophobic presidential campaign, which didn’t begin until months after the earlier Pew study was released.

That likely jump in voter participation isn’t a guess, either: the latest Pew survey, using Census Bureau statistics from this September, and extrapolating from voter behavior in the 2004 vote, estimated that 8.6 million Hispanic voters will turn out in 2008 – an increase of 1 million over 2004.

From the survey: “Hispanics loom as a potential "swing vote" in next year's presidential race. That's because they are strategically located on the 2008 Electoral College map. Hispanics constitute a sizable share of the electorate in four of the six states that President Bush carried by margins of five percentage points or fewer in 2004 –New Mexico (where Hispanics make up 37% of state's eligible electorate); Florida (14%); Nevada (12%) and Colorado (12%). All four are expected to be closely contested once again in 2008.”

For the Republican Party … these are the stakes: To redeem themselves with the fastest-growing minority group in America, already 46 million strong; to start the process of wooing a voting bloc repudiated by conservative ideologues; and to start undoing the serious damage done. If the Pew report is an indicator of what happens next year, the GOP’s efforts would be best started now — to help their chances in 2012.

Image credits: Top: Cesar Bojourquez > Flckr > Licensed under Ceative Commons Attribution 2.5 > Wikipedia. Lower: Andy Thayer > released to public domain
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