Why is there peace?

Why is There Peace? — violence is declining, over history, at least in relative terms, though not, one suspects, absolute ones.

Eastside Roots

Heading to Cornwall on a train last Friday, I spotted something interesting as we neared Bristol Temple Meads: Eastside Roots, a community gardening project — look out for it by Stapleton Road station.

“Believe Me, It’s Torture”

Christopher Hitchens gets waterboarded [via Dawkins].

The evolution of the eye

Anti-evolutionists sometimes use the human eye as an argument for a creator; here’s David Attenborough explaining why that’s tosh [via frosty].

Sign here, please

If you think it shouldn’t be illegal to photograph police officers, please sign here. If you don’t think so, please watch this and then tell me why not. Thanks!

Edwardian Callington photos on the BBC, courtesy of the Gimblett boys

This morning, my Dad opened an exhibition in the museum in my home town, of ninety photos taken by my great-grandfather, found (on glass plates) when Dad retired, and recently restored by him via digital photography. Here’s an article on the BBC, including an audio interview with Dad, in which (I think) he sounds fab. Rich voice, Terrence!

“The Doctor Will Sue You Now”

If you’re ever looking for a warning sign that you’re on the wrong side of an argument, suing Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably a pretty good clue.

Video of Ian Tomlinson assualted from behind without provocation by a police officer

The Guardian have published video footage of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught up in last week’s G20 protests in London, being struck from behind in the leg with a baton and pushed to the ground by a police officer as he walked away peacably with his hands in his pockets. He died of a heart attack a little while later.

It becomes clearer that the purpose of riot police is not only to protect the public at large by controlling riots, but also to protect the status quo by discouraging dissent and protest — if you know that even protesting peacefully (or being in the area of a protest but not participating, as in Tomlinson’s case) you are at risk of unprovoked attack by armed, armoured and aggressive large males, you will tend to be discouraged from doing so. I know I am. :-/

How to grow your own fresh air

How to grow your own fresh air.

David Byrne at Fallingwater

David Byrne visited Fallingwater— nice.

We tried to imagine the parties. Given that this was 75 miles from town, many of the evenings must have been sleepovers. The questions culminated in someone asking if Junior ever married. When the answer came back no, someone in our group shouted “bingo!” Our poor guide put her hand to her face as if this was all too much.

Old news, I realise. I’m going through stuff which has been languishing in my Read It Later bin, emptying it and moving some to the more iPhone-friendly InstaPaper.

The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants

The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants.

Malc’s coat recommendations

Malc’s coat recommendations — had this link lying around for a while, and it’s about time I archived it here.

Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

Fantastic, hilarious, insightful and inspiring talk on education and creativity: Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? (20 minutes, from TED 2006.) Absolutely on the money, top to bottom.

Jared Diamond on Collapse

One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years was Collapse by Jared Diamond. It’s meaty, well researched, well argued, systematic, fascinating, and fairly terrifying (though with the possibility of hope, at least).

In this 20 minute video, Diamond pretty much summarises the whole book. If you think it’s something you might want to read, watch the vid, because everything he talks about is explored in much more depth in the book — and all the book’s major themes are touched upon.

If still unsure, check out Diamond’s Long Now seminar (audio here), which is where I first came across him.

Here we stand, at the cusp

Fantastic Bruce Sterling: 2009 will be a year of panic, but the good news is the true 21st century begins here.

Possibly the best £20 I ever spent

Spread the word: Jaipur Foot [via Rhodri].

Social Security vs Ponzi Schemes

Good Math, Bad Math has a nice post today drawing a distinction between Social Security and Ponzi Schemes; some interesting discussion in the comments, too – always good to see Life of Brian brought into the fray. :-)

The cotton belt, and the Cornish highlands

Two map-related items of interest:

From Pickin’ Cotton to Pickin’ Presidents correlates deep-south counties voting for Obama with cotton production in 1860, in a very striking manner. I found the following rather notable:

As it turns out, president-elect Obama won with the an overall support of 53%, but that includes over 90% of black voters.

Of white voters, only 43% voted for Obama; since Lyndon B. Johnson, no Democratic candidate for the highest office has ever garnered more than half the votes of European-Americans.

Then, comment #96 provides the geological context, expanded upon here, and in particular pointing at this fascinating map of “shorelines in the Cretaceous period”.

You can just see Britain on the right of that map, and ooh look, it’s all underwater apart from part of Scotland, most of Ireland, and south-west England including all of Devon and Cornwall. The most prominent topographical features of Devon and Cornwall these days are Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, worn down “ancient mountains” as my geography teacher put it to me one day; it looks like, in the cretaceous, they weren’t quite so worn down…

For example, see Maria Full Of Grace (Marston, 2004)

As I’ve been saying for a few years now, there’s no such thing as Fair-Trade cocaine; this may, of course, be freely construed as an argument for legalisation or for greater sanctions, according to your prevailing political worldview.

Beyond peace and quiet

Forget the houses. This is what it’s all about.

Bringing the house down

An extremely readable piece in yesterday’s Guardian magazine on the UK property market: how it got like it is, why it’s so different to its friends overseas, and what’s (in his opinion) likely to happen. I found the background more interesting than the predictioneering, of course. Tasters:

Say you bought your house in 1970, and paid the then-national average price for it: £4,378. At the peak of the current spike in prices, that same average house would have been worth £184,431. Congratulations! You’ve multiplied your money almost 43 times. You’re rich, do you hear me?

Rich! Except you aren’t, really. Strip out the effect of inflation, and that spectacular sounding 4,300% price rise works out as 2.4% a year in real terms. This is close, in other words, to the historic long-term average for investments regarded as being more or less without any risk at all. That’s where the expression “safe as houses” comes from.

British householders are allergic to fixed interest rates; we prefer variable loans. No one quite knows why, since fixed interest rates often make good sense, and have the effect of transferring some of the risk of the loan to the banks. If you have a variable rate mortgage, and the central bank interest rate goes up, you feel it in your pocket; if you have a fixed rate and the same thing happens, the bank feels it. In the US, the two institutions designed to help the banking system to bear the risk of this fixed-rate lending are called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That’s the same Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that on September 7 were taken over by the US government in the biggest nationalisation in the history of the world; and the reason they went under was precisely because they were swamped by the cost of these risks.

Towards the end of 2006, the average investment yield on a buy-to-let property no longer covered the mortgage that had been taken out to buy it. In other words, the average buy-to-let investor was losing money on a monthly basis. The reason for hanging on in there was the hope for capital growth. But house prices in the UK are now in decline. The Nationwide survey for the year to October showed a decline of 14.6%; add the CPI inflation rate of 5.2%, and prices have fallen almost 20% already. So for those buy-to-letters already losing money on the interest payments, capital growth now looks some way off. Depending on what was paid for the property, it may be many years off. If all buy-to-let investors realise this and stampede for the exit at the same time, the UK property market will go off the edge of a cliff.

What motivates terrorists?

Schneier on terrorist motivation, positing that it’s less about achieving political ends, and more about being part of a social structure [brunns]. Sounds quite reasonable. I was struck a bit by this sentence:

We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries.

Now, I won’t argue with that, except: aren’t they often the same people?

So, some voting happened

Sums up some of the main issues with voting machines quite nicely, I think [pwb].

In other news, I hear the American electorate did something right yesterday (or to put it another way…); unfortunately, at time of writing it remains unclear whether Californian voters have dropped the ball and approved Proposition 8. Sadly, it looks like they have, and Stephen Fry claims they have, but I suspect he’s responding to polls not actual results, as the latter don’t seem to have be announced yet. OTOH maybe there’s something about being a British National Treasure in the middle of nowhere in Madagascar that gives you prophetic powers. It’s looking like an increasingly near thing, so there’s hope yet.

Photos: Budapest with Alexa, March 2008

Here, finally, my photos of Budapest, from the week I spent there with Alexa at the end of March (as mentioned in an earlier post).

Yes, it’s really taken me three months to get back to tagging and naming them. You can’t really blame me: I did it once already then half the data was lost — such an experience is extremely disheartening. Stupid data.

Choice cuts:

The Alexa's tree St Steven's Basilica 300 stairs later Hammer On Alexa, slightly furrowed of brow Interesting graffiti First Alexa triptych More Alexa disdain Window arm, Margit Telescope eyepiece World Heritage Noncy! This way to the Labirintus Fisherman's Bastion, reflected (1) Happy Window Face... Peter Mansfeld Memorial (6) Kwak suds Andy drinking Kwak Budapest Fringe Festival, wobbly Alexa Approacheth, at the Fringe Magma Fire Theatre at Budapest Fringe Festival 2008 (2) Magma Fire Theatre at Budapest Fringe Festival 2008 (8) Magma Fire Theatre at Budapest Fringe Festival 2008 (14) Alexa on a Jetty Aggressive dog statue

First Alexa triptych

Andy drinking Kwak

Alexa Approacheth, at the Fringe

Doors to hell

The Door to Hell [longnow].

Other entrances to Hell, originally noted by Gimboland in 2002.

The subprime primer

The joy of hindsight: the sub-prime catastrophe in a few nutshells [smallcool].

Depression FTW! But not in an emo sense…

Upsides of being down — the positive side of depression.

Having spent most of 2006 and 2007 going through this myself, I can, I think, agree. It was unutterably awful, the worst experience of my life bar none (happily, both my parents are still alive) and I would not choose to repeat it but on the other hand, on the other hand, I am, somehow, improved, I think. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say more resilient but yeah, with a better perspective, less rose tints (but also no yawning chasms of nihilism), and a bit more serious. But don’t worry: not too much more.

To explain why depression has not been “bred out” through Darwinian natural selection, theories have suggested that rather than being a defect, depression could be a defence against the chronic stress that misguided people can put themselves under. It is possible that depression defends us against the tendency to deny our true needs by chasing unobtainable goals and helps to bring these needs into sharper focus. More specifically, the proposed benefits are as follows: removal from a stressful situation, introspection, problem solving, the development of a new perspective, and reintegrating this with the community upon recovery.

On a related but geeky note, it’s very annoying that the otherwise excellent Guardian Unlimited fails (yes, epic) when it comes to search. Go to the front page and search for “upsides of being down”, the title of this article. It’s a hit but you have scroll down a long way to see it; google, on the other hand have it right at the top, on the day it was published — damn, they good! So come on, Simon, sort it out. ;-)

Destroy the secondary planet evidence, reactance armet!

Destroy the evidence — wonderful.

Impending food crisis?

Reading and listening to Long Now stuff has given me an (at its most optimistic) more skeptical and (at its most pessimistic) more long term non-human-centric view of stories like this, but it’s nonetheless food for thought (excuse the pun): Financial Times: impending food crisis? [i-r-squared via jreighley, randomly via twitter].

Hard red wheat is limit up again (i think thats 9 days out of 11) and is at $19.80 a bushel. When it broke $6 a bushel last summer that was an all time high.

A WFP official, for example, recently showed me the red plastic cup that is used to dole out daily rations to starving Africans – and then explained, in graphically moving terms, that this vessel is typically now only being filled by two-thirds each day, because food prices are rising faster than the WFP budget.

But it’s this that really caught my eye:

World grain stock as Days of Consumption, 1960-2006

Armed police arrest man over MP3 player

Armed police arrested a man listening to his MP3 player and took a sample of his DNA after a fellow commuter mistook the music player for a gun. [smallcool]

Darren Nixon had been waiting at a bus stop in Stoke-on-Trent on his way home from work when a woman saw him reach into his pocket and take out a black Phillips MP3 player. The woman thought it was a pistol and called 999.

Police tracked 28-year-old Nixon using CCTV, sending three cars to follow him. When he got off the bus, armed officers surrounded him. He was driven to a police station, kept in a cell and had his fingerprints, photograph and DNA taken.

The Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning to have the DNA records of innocent people destroyed, said the national DNA database now held more than 3m records kept for life, an estimated 125,000 of which belong to people who were neither cautioned or charged.


LMAO @ the Guiliani visualisation on Defective Yeti’s analysis of the current state of the US presidential contest. I must say, I’m glad to see him out.

Irrefutable proof

The moon landings really are fake!!!11 [smallcool]

Cold beauty

Thin worship — harsh but beautiful (decreasingly so to the right, I think). I wondered why the photographer used the Haskellish term foldr1, but the answer is prosaic and on the front page. Yowzer.

So: humans may be capable of cold startling beauty but so too the sea.

Both via [ffffound], spamming my RSS with notable pixels.

Notes: Tony Sale on WW2 codebreaking and Colossus rebuild

Earlier this evening I went to a great lecture by Tony Sale, on “Code Breaking in World War 2″.

He discussed Enigma, and how it was broken, then the Lorenz cipher/machine, and how that was broken, and then the Colossus, leading to the Colossus rebuild project. He should know about this stuff: he started the project.

I took some notes if anyone is interested [PDF, 76Kb] (naturally, these are rough notes, may contain errors, are my own, etc.). You might also want to check out codesandciphers.org.uk which includes a virtual Colossus.

“Approximate location of your property”

Heathrow daily traffic routes circa heck knows when: easterly ops, westerly ops.

“True Christians should only read English” and other gems

Kinda like a fundy bash.org: 100 greatest quotes from fundamentalist Christian chat rooms — well worth a look if you want to experience the feeling of not knowing whether to laugh or cry [pixi].

Gravity: Doesn’t exist. If items of mass had any impact of others, then mountains should have people orbiting them.

You are banned. You are not a Christian for Christians don’t accuse brothers and sisters in Christ of being non-Christian.

Make sure your answer uses Scripture, not logic.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid, for example… sounds impressive, right? But have you ever seen what happens if you put something in acid? It dissolves! If we had all this acid in our cells, we’d all dissolve! So much for the Theory of Evolution, Check MATE!

Caveat: this post mocks idiots, not Christians; in no sense do I assert that either set is a subset of the other.

“If you fear change, leave it in here.”

Paul Saffo: “Embracing Uncertainty – the secret to effective forecasting”.

The first images of the Earth from space

The first photos of the Earth from space, taken from a captured German V2 rocket in 1946. Cor. [longnow]

Aside: again with the pagination!

Colossus reborn

Colossus reborn.

“I’m wearing a glowing hat – just look for a glowing hat!”

(If you can’t be bothered to read all the of the following, just watch this video and know that I Was There…)

At 5pm yesterday, I left Swansea in the company of eight excellent people. Around 10pm, we arrived at the car park at Stonehenge, and set up our tents. Around 11pm, I stood before the stones and took a deep breath, before walking among them, touching them, looking, wondering (and weaving my way through a tight-packed throng of revellers). Around 4:50am, along with about 24,000 other weirdos, I looked to the sunrise but alas, ’twas hidden in clouds. Around 6am, I was in the tent, being horizontal; around 10am, I was up and about, rejuvenated and ready for the drive home; around noon, we left. Around 5pm I was waving madly at ex-students from the passenger window of a mini on the M4, much to their amusement. Around 7, I got home and made the cats happy through the magic of food.

26 of the most pleasant hours I have ever spent, I must say. The only thing missing was Bash, which is an excellent excuse for going again next year.

I’d never been to Stonehenge before at all, and I am incredibly grateful to my parents for never taking me, because this was the best first visit I can imagine. Ordinarily, it’s impossible to get right up to the stones (see google maps – those greayish dots trailing around the stones are disappointed tourists), but for the solstice it’s open and free – all praise English Heritage. It was so good to be able to walk right up to this incredible site without restriction, and I recommend a solstice visit if only for this purpose. Word to the wise, however: if weirdos bother you, arrive early, touch the stones, and don’t stay past sunset.

Cos yep, it’s gotta be said: the place was full of weirdos. I was happy to be one of them, but definitely on the normal side, alas. Much nonsense was spoken, but I was particularly amused by: “Emergency! Emergency! Glowstick breakage on the western stone!”, “If you’re not drinking ginger wine you don’t really exist – it’s a quantum thing.”, and “Your hat would be no good for Burning Man: they’d run you out of town. No, they’d fire-poi you out of town.”

BBC coverage here – though I’m sure most of the crowd didn’t get up early: they stayed up late. :-) “It’s bad lovin’, woo hoo, it’s bad lovin’!”

It was a clear night with stratocumulus scudding in from the south just in time to sprinkle us with a couple of light showers and obscure the sunrise – given the rain lately, we were more than grateful for the weather. I certainly didn’t mind not seeing the sun actually break the horizon: I was there for the night, not for the moment. It was a bit chilly around 3am, but I was kept super snug (and thus smug) by my birthday present from Bash and my parents: a shiny new Montane Extreme Smock, as recommended by intrepid Mountain Rescue types. All hail.

Interesting: 5000 more people than last year, but 1000 less cars. Only four arrests.

Photos will follow.

On Belgian Beer

On Belgian Beer.

Jenny had a mouthful of Carillon gueuze – one of the most exalted blends – at a bar on Friday lunchtime, and she looked at me in horror. “I suppose it’s meant to taste like that,” she said. “Yep,” I replied. “It’s not for me,” she said. I took a sip. I could see exactly what she meant. It was like an wildly unsuccessful stab at a Lithuanian salad dressing. But… I had to keep ordering gueuze, where’er we went.

Don’t kiss in public in India?

Wtf? Warrant issued for Richard Gere’s arrest in India following public kissing. Kissing on the cheek, mind you. An “obscene act”, apparently – it’s official!

Public displays of affection are still largely taboo in India, and protestors in Mumbai (Bombay) set fire to effigies of Gere following the incident.

Wtf? They burnt effigies of him? For a bit I wondered if the anger was directed solely at him. Apparently not.

… while protesters in other cities shouted “death to Shilpa Shetty”.

Here we have actual human beings, calling for the deaths of other actual human beings, because they kissed in public? Ye gods and little children, will the insanity of men never cease?

All known bodies in the Solar System larger than 200 miles in diameter

Here’s a super-cool (and very very large) image: All (known) bodies in the Solar System larger than 200 miles in diameter. Via the recently unveiled Long Now blog.

I received my Long Now charter membership card this morning. The envelope was beautiful – square, dun cardboard, a big Long Now logo, pretty American stamps, a San Francisco postmark, understated address labels… I was really impressed. Unfortunately, I was much less impressed by its contents, my “limited edition, individually numbered, stainless steel Charter Member card”. Flimsy (in fact, slightly bent), and fingerprinted, it really didn’t have the expected feel of, well, longevity. I was, at least, expecting something thicker and less bendable. :-)

New Orleans flood warnings in 2001

While going through Gimboland history, I came across this post from 2001, discussing the near-certainty of an imminent catastrophic hurricane/flood decimating New Orleans — less than four years later, along came Katrina. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that the population of the city has largely bounced back since Katrina — so expect more of the same in a few years, I guess.

Parakeets UK

Parakeets in London & the home counties.

Muhammad Yunus – Nobel Lecture: Poverty is a Threat to Peace

Awe inspiring.

Ninety four percent of the world income goes to 40 percent of the population while sixty percent of people live on only 6 per cent of world income. Half of the world population lives on two dollars a day. Over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. This is no formula for peace.

Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.

Today, Grameen Bank gives loans to nearly 7.0 million poor people, 97 per cent of whom are women, in 73,000 villages in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank gives collateral-free income generating, housing, student and micro-enterprise loans to the poor families and offers a host of attractive savings, pension funds and insurance products for its members. Since it introduced them in 1984, housing loans have been used to construct 640,000 houses. The legal ownership of these houses belongs to the women themselves. We focused on women because we found giving loans to women always brought more benefits to the family.

In a cumulative way the bank has given out loans totaling about US $6.0 billion. The repayment rate is 99%. Grameen Bank routinely makes profit. Financially, it is self-reliant and has not taken donor money since 1995. Deposits and own resources of Grameen Bank today amount to 143 per cent of all outstanding loans. According to Grameen Bank’s internal survey, 58 per cent of our borrowers have crossed the poverty line.

The Trembling Giant

Introducing Pando, a male Quaking Aspen clonal colony – at six gigagrams the most massive known single organism on the planet, and possibly the oldest (although this is apparently controversial and of course upsets those imaginative people who maintain that the whole planet was flooded by God a mere six thousand years ago).

Iraq is like a fist in a beehive

There – I’ve said it. Wonderful and well-expressed analogy for the Iraq situation courtesy of Simon.

Happy-slapping and protester-tasering: ban it all!

There’s a story in today’s Guardian about banning happy-slapping videos on sites such as Youtube. The journalist understates the difficulty and complexity of this issue beautifully:

The issue is likely to be raised when MPs debate the violent crime reduction bill next week, but it is unlikely an amendment on such a complex area of broadcasting freedom could be put together in an acceptable form over the weekend.

Unlikely? Over the weekend? D’ya think?

It reminds me of the debate over the hate-speech bill, one of the counter-arguments to which was that the law, as framed, would also in fact exclude much comedy. Gladly this doesn’t seem to have transpired, but still, the powers are there and could be used.

In particular, if you ban YouTube from hosting disturbing videos of indiscriminate and unwarranted violence, that law could well ban videos such as these, of protesters being tasered. Some of these are truly disturbing, and not the kind of thing you’re going to see on BBC News any time soon – but their availability is progress in the battle towards an open society.

Robert Fisk was on Desert Island Discs yesterday. Say what you like about him, he spoke well, and clearly sees the job of the journalist as telling the truth – whatever it is, however unsavoury. Youtube and its ilk are an opportunity for anyone to engage in telling the truth as they see it, and in documenting world events. News is a highly politicised monetised commodity (hello Mr Murdoch), and any movement towards decentralising news gathering/distribution to the public at large is progress. Something else Fisk said, IIRC, was that if the public saw the reality of war as he had seen it, “the dogs eating the corpses of children” as he put it, they would never, ever, support any war. A law which bans violent videos from the internet runs counter to that trend.

The only mitigator would be a “public interest” clause, I suppose. So if you seeing a violent video law being framed without such a clause, protest. Even so, I’d argue it’s problematic…

Brazil collision: Too much precision a bad thing?

Insightful and non-intuitive – just the way I like it: increased precision in avionics arguably increases the risk of mid-air collision.

How statistics won the war

It wasn’t all cryptography, you know; or physics; or thousands of men lobbing hot fast-moving shards of metal at each other repeatedly.

Oh no… Stats was critical too [schneier].

Eyewitness account of atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, 1945.08.06

61 years ago today, atomic weaponry was used in anger for the first time, against the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Here is a first-person eyewitness account of that event and the days that followed. It is worth reading.

Computational Theology – made up name!

Reading this eWeek article on Sun’s desire to support dynamic languages better on the JVM (via lambda) I was struck by the following sentence:

Gilad Bracha, a computational theologist at Sun delivered a presentation called “Dynamically Typed Languages on the Java Platform” at the Lang.NET 2006 Symposium here on August 1, and said Sun plans to broaden its support for dynamic or scripting languages.

Exqueeze me? Computational Theologist?

Perhaps, I mused, this had something to do with computing The Nine Billions Names of God (not something I’d use Java for, I think). Or maybe some other scripture-related buffoonery such as finding predictions of Lady Diana’s death in Moby Dick… So I googled for it.

Nope, turns out it’s something Gilad Bracha made up because the task of interpreting natural language specifications of languages and virtual machines reminded him of Talmudic scripture interpretation.

Oh, how I laughed. It is, from one point of view, a beautifully subversive move on Brachca’s part – perhaps a first step in decoupling the word theology from anything to do with God or gods, which is bound to annoy existing theologians and is thus worthwhile. Also, I can completely see what he means in that most natural language specifications I’ve seen are full of ambiguities, irreconcilable contradictions, and just bad thinking. I leave the reader to close the loop on this analogy.

On the other hand, I’m cautious about welcoming the use of the word, and its associations, anywhere near computer science. If science and reason free us from having to use religious dogma to explain the world, and if mathematics is the language of science, and if computer science is simply one form of mathematics – all of which I believe – then religious tools and terminology are a poor fit to the domain, if you ask me.

By the way, I’m not saying in the previous paragraph that I believe science makes religion completely unnecessary, or proves it to be hogwash. I don’t believe that for one moment – although some people do, and you can say what you like about science being their religion. I believe the rational worldview and the religious one are two orthogonal ways of looking at the world. Anything we can explain or deduce with science, religion has nothing to say about; for me, religion lives in the gaps between the theorems, in the undecidable propositions, in the time between the end of this universe and the start of the next, in the unknowable, in the sublime.

Fake IDs save lives in Iraq

Fake IDs save lives in Iraq [schneier].

… Iraqis are using fake IDs in light of the recent growth in sectarian killings. The major groups in Iraq are not distinguishable by physical traits, but they are by name. To avoid being killed, people are getting false identification cards: Surnames refer to tribe and clan, while first names are often chosen to honor historical figures revered by one sect but sometimes despised by the other. For about $35, someone with a common Sunni name like Omar could become Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite name that might provide safe passage through dangerous areas.

Of course, I’m not suggesting this is an argument against having ID cards here in the UK, at least unless Welsh-English tensions get seriously worse. I did once pretend to be Welsh in the face of some extreme hostility, mind – but the drunk Welsh rugby wanker in question didn’t demand my ID card at gunpoint, so…

The Politics of Paranoia and Intimidation

Great stuff. Bayes’ Theory applied to explain why one key “common sense” facet of the USA’s “war on terror” is a waste of time and money, at least for its stated purpose. [schneier]

If the following paragraph doesn’t cause you to nod knowingly, you really should read the whole article. (BTW, I’ve changed the figures to percentages, for enhanced legibility by non mathematicians).

Suppose that NSA’s system is really, really, really good, really, really good, with an accuracy rate of 90%, and a misidentification rate of .001%, which means that only 3,000 innocent people are misidentified as terrorists. With these suppositions, then the probability that people are terrorists given that NSA’s system of surveillance identifies them as terrorists is only 23%, which is far from 100% and well below flipping a coin. NSA’s domestic monitoring of everyone’s email and phone calls is useless for finding terrorists.

This kind of result is often very suprising and non-intuitive, and hence important. When reality diverges from “common sense”, we need to understand why, so we can explain it to people who like to trust “common sense” in their decision making processes (eg Daily Mail readers ;-) ). This kind of result crops up all over the place… I first came across it in the context of medical diagnosis, where it basically explains why misdiagnosis happens so often. Quite simply, the numbers are just stacked against us. There’s nothing we can do about it – we just have to understand what’s happening and get on with it.

Self-help just another religion?

The Self-help business: billions of dollars, not much help? [43folders]

“…the talks and tapes offer a momentary boost of inspiration that fades after a few weeks, turning buyers into repeat customers. While Salerno was a self-help book editor for Rodale Press… extensive market surveys revealed that “the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months.” The irony of “the eighteen-month rule” for this genre, Salerno says, is this: “If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us – at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again.”

Bottled water not just ‘no better’, it’s also unethical

Most bottled water is no better than tap water, and all of it is unethical, according to this article.

More than 50 Indian villages have complained of water shortages after bottlers began extracting water for sale under Coca-Cola Co.’s Dasani label, EPI said.

According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter. Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals tied to a host of human and animal health problems. Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.

Defence really is much more expensive than education

USA spending 100,000 dollars every minute on Iraq – enough to pay for a 4-year college degree every 30 seconds.

Lowri Turner: “the electorate hates fags, and rightly so”

TV presenter Lowri Turner made some “interesting” remarks lately, asserting in a Western Mail column that sexual orientation has an actual effect on ability and thus, in her mind, right, to participate in government – and that in particular, gay men should not govern. She also tells us bisexuality doesn’t exist, and other little nuggets of wisdom. Lots of people blogging on this, btw. eg, this one‘s quite good/coherent.

Wow. I can of course tolerate people who are small-minded, closed-minded, bigoted and generally unpleasant to their fellow humans, so long as they’re not in government, anyway. Turner is, however (worse!) all over the shop with her logic.

To summarise, we have her telling us that sexual orientation is fixed, that bisexuals are fooling themselves (oh, that old chestnut!), and that if you’re gay you shouldn’t be running the country because, um, you’re not capable. For some reason.

She defends this last point in time-honoured fashion:

Before I am accused of prejudice, I should say that not only are some of my best friends gay, but probably most of them are. I work in the media, for goodness sake. It is precisely because I know such a lot of gay men that I can say that I don’t think many of them are capable of representing the interests of the vast majority of people. Their lifestyles are too divorced from the norm. They are not better or worse, but they are different.

Does she really believe she can speak authoritatively of all gay men just because she works in the media? Furthermore, I’d assert, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that the reason their lifestyles are “divorced from the norm” isn’t that they’re gay – it’s that they work in the media. (Just kidding Bash.)

Anyway, she then contradicts her assertion that “they are not better or worse, but they are different”, by explaining how “they” are, in fact, worse:

“Gay men face challenges of their own, but they do not face those associated with having children which is the way most of us live. … My gay friends have not sat in accident and emergency with a small child. They have not had to make the decision over whether to give them MMR. They have not struggled to get their child statemented or gone through the schools’ appeals process.”

No Lowri, gay men (and women) never have children in their life. You’re absolutely right. They never do. They never adopt, for example. And when they do they make an even bigger mess of it than straights, even straights with jobs in the media. By the way, I’m being sarcastic at this point.

There’s more of the same, and she does seem obsessed with the parental experience. Saying that gay men don’t have the experience of sitting in casualty with a small child is crazy – gross and patently untrue overgeneralisation. I will grant that you’d probably find it happens less than with straight parents (purely on numbers, I mean), but that doesn’t validate the point. Further, if your next statement is “thus all gay men know nothing of children”, and the one after that is “thus, this particular gay man should not govern”, you clearly haven’t grasped the idea of rational thinking yet. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she does. It’s also a deeply flawed argument in that it would apply equally well (if it worked) to straight people who happen to be childless.

Anyway, has she never heard of the Conservative Party? ;-)

Keeping it Welsh (The Western Mail is published from Cardiff), I wonder what Adam Price MP (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr), gay and in parliament, thinks about all this, by the way…

Next step in the oil wars

The USA must forcibly annex Khuzestan in the next couple of months to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the dollar?

Totalitarianism in a nutshell

Totalitarianism in a nutshell [smallcool].

Sheep on Bikes

Mint Sauce [malc]. “Mint” was always something I experienced second-hand, mainly through Malc going on about how good it was, and seeing the occasional strip or single image. It always did look like something I’d like to read if I had a big book of them on my lap, Calvin-and-Hobbes style, and yes Malc, Summer is awesome, and by awesome I mean totally sweet. I particularly like the glimpse of Mint’s paw in her hand in that strip (and the CATs). Ah, it takes me back to days of big hair, cloaks and emberday tarts (must cook that again some time).

The Cyprus Crisis

I can’t remember how I came across it, but I’ve had a copy of The Cyprus Crisis: A Multilateral Bargaining Simulation (pdf, 100KB) sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, for about six months now. This morning I finally got round to it, and a good time was had by all.

The paper describes a technique used in Florida State University’s Political Science department, where students simulated a few days of the international situation surrounding Cyprus. (Note that the simulation takes place “in the real world” – this is not about computerised simulation.) Individual students took on roles of various political actors (eg members of the UN Security Council), and over a few days various negotiations took place, against a backdrop of unfolding events beyonds the students’ control.

It’s quite short, and well worth a read, even if this isn’t your field (it certainly isn’t mine). There’s not a huge depth of detail, and while the main concern of the article is whether the simulation worked as a teaching technique (it seemed to), there’s little in the way of heavy analysis – largely it’s just a description of what they did and why.

Chomsky interview

A succinct interview with Chomsky, touching on the morbid state of democracy in the USA, the “War on Terror”, Iraq, oil, all the usual stuff… Some very interesting (but short) comments on China towards the end as well.

Now let’s talk about withdrawal. Take any day’s newspapers or journals and so on. They start by saying the United States aims to bring about a sovereign democratic independent Iraq. I mean, is that even a remote possibility? Just consider what the policies would be likely to be of an independent sovereign Iraq. If it’s more or less democratic, it’ll have a Shiite majority. They will naturally want to improve their linkages with Iran, Shiite Iran. Most of the clerics come from Iran. The Badr Brigade, which basically runs the South, is trained in Iran. They have close and sensible economic relationships which are going to increase. So you get an Iraqi/Iran loose alliance. Furthermore, right across the border in Saudi Arabia, there’s a Shiite population which has been bitterly oppressed by the U.S.-backed fundamentalist tyranny. And any moves toward independence in Iraq are surely going to stimulate them, it’s already happening. That happens to be where most of Saudi Arabian oil is. Okay, so you can just imagine the ultimate nightmare in Washington: a loose Shiite alliance controlling most of the world’s oil, independent of Washington and probably turning toward the East, where China and others are eager to make relationships with them, and are already doing it. Is that even conceivable? The U.S. would go to nuclear war before allowing that, as things now stand.

Come out George Galloway, your time is up

Awesome: A petition to get George Galloway out of the Big Brother house, and back to work, pointing out that his salary comes from the public pocket (thanks, Will!).

10 reasons not to buy (or accept) a diamong ring

10 reasons not to buy (or accept) a diamond ring. (I’m happy to say that Bash’s engagement ring isn’t diamond.)

2006.01.10: More good stuff about the history of the international diamond trade here. (Wow, that’s long. Caveat: I have only read the first page! Looks good, though.)

Housing market crashes and fictional stock wealth

This is pretty fascinating… Written from an American perspective but the economic points he makes are universal, and I’m sure it could happen here: Warning signs of the housing bubble crash (part two). From “yay, we’re going to make loads of money” to “oh no, the bank is repossessing the house and we’ll still owe them a fortune” in six easy pieces.

My favourite part is the explanation of how fictional wealth is created on the stock market:

For example, let’s say five people each own one share of a company that has only five shares. Let’s say each share is worth $10. How much money is there total? Well, it’s five times 10, so that makes $50.

Now, let’s say that one of these five people decides to sell his share to his friend, but he’s convinced his friend to buy it for $20 (a profit of $10 to the seller). He sells one share to his friend for $20. What’s the share price now, for the whole company? The share price is $20 because the share price is based on the last sold price. Now there are five people and each of them has one share that’s worth $20. Suddenly, there’s $100 total instead of $50 total. All five people think they’ve just doubled their money!

That’s what happens in the stock market. See, all five people think they’re getting rich. But what really happened is that one idiot bought the stock at double the price. There was no new customer, no new business revenue and no new profit. There was just one guy who overpaid for the stock. That’s how fictional wealth is created in stock market exchanges. It’s just an illusion. Where did this extra $50 come from? It came out of nowhere. It’s just numbers on paper.

This explanation is slightly incorrect in the details. After one of the five shareholders sells his share to someone else, there are only four shareholders remaining, not five, but the explanation still talks in terms of fives. But you can see why, and the underlying principles are unaffected by this inaccuracy and more clearly illustrated for it, I’d say.

Now, for literally years I’ve been reading about people having, and losing, “fortunes on paper” without really understanding what it actually meant or how it could happen. “Why did all these people lose their money?”, I wondered. “Why couldn’t they sell their stock when it was up?” Well, now I understand: some did get out, but once the market started correcting, that immediately stopped happening for everyone.

How to prevent this? Seems to my untrained brain that the critical part is the statement in boldface: the share price for everyone is defined by the last sale price. There’s got to be a better way to do this? Surely you could base it on some sort of aggregated calculation over some subset of all sales. Presumably mean sale price over all sales would be too crude – you’d want recent sales to count more than older ones. Or would what I’m suggesting just slow the problem down, but not eliminate it? I Am Not An Economist, as you may have guessed. :-) Anyway, good stuff.

When the dot-com crash happened, billions of dollars were lost overnight through that exact same method I just described. Billions of dollars did not fly away. Those dollars did not get transferred into some rich person’s pocket, which is what most people believe. They think rich people ran away with the money. That’s incorrect. The money never existed in the first place. The money disappeared overnight because suddenly the stock price was dropping rapidly.

Much gothica and homespun on the streets of Helsinki

Helsinki girls have more style than Swansea girls (with some notable exceptions, of course) [shauny].

Honourable mentions: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

On externalising costs

Says it all [simon]:

One of the great things about living in an industrialised, globalised society is that the economic power you unthinkingly wield means that others pay the excess costs of your wasteful and polluting activities. Externalising costs in this way and reconstituting patterns of global inequality in the process is of course one of the enduring triumphs of capitalism.

Snapshot of the state of the art in bionic cochlear implants

This seems to be doing the rounds but it’s remarkable enough, and close enough to my own personal & research interests that I just have to blog it: My Bionic Quest for Boléro [via boingboing which inaccurately suggests the author of the piece tinkered with the software himself].

While my friends’ ears will inevitably decline with age, mine will only get better.

This is awesome stuff – a perfect example of HCI at a very human level. The author puts it best himself, I think, in the title of his book: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. I predict (or at least dearly hope) that this a theme we’re going to keep seeing played out, in increasing volume and sophistication, over the next fifty years, along with all the obvious reactionary conservatism from the usual suspects… In the words of Webb: bring the noise.

Media perspectives on napalm and white phosphorous in Iraq

Americans using (banned) napalm and white phosphorous in Iraq, BBC not reporting it, thanks to practice of embedding reporters in military units [robot].

Thus, BBC viewers were unaware of the fine words of Colonel James Alles, commander of the US Marine Air Group II. “We napalmed both those bridge approaches,” he said. “Unfortunately, there were people there…. you could see them in the cockpit video… It’s no great way to die. The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect.”

(And of course, there’s that other old “what in name of all that is good are they thinking?” chestnut, depleted uranium

I’ve heard many people in the UK talk disparagingly about how the “news” in the USA is just a joke, a farce, and that most Americans have no real idea of what’s actually going on in the world. Alas, America doesn’t (of course) hold the monopoly on biased/incompetent journalism…

Oona King in/on New Orleans

Oona King in America, talking about New Orleans, the race divide, and in particular the idea that whites don’t think about race, just because they don’t have to. Good stuff, to make you wish even more fervently that George Galloway hadn’t unseated her.

Pedestrian Terrorism

Anyone stupid enough to believe The Powers That Be when they say anti-terror legislation won’t be used inappropriately for general authoritarian head-stamping should read this about a woman arrested under the Terrorism Act for walking on a cycle path [robot].

The Open Rights Group needs you!

Living in Britain? Give a monkey about civil rights? Give a monkey about civil rights in a digital age? Me too.

Get over to pledgebank and pledge a fiver a month to fund The Open Rights Group, then. Yes you can afford it, and yes it’s worth it.

Or at the very least, read this to find out why you might want to do such a thing.

Message ends.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics

The Feynman Lectures on Physics – PDF notes on all the lectures and mp3s for most of them. Gigabytes of data, however…

Update 2006-10-07: looks like that’s now a dead like. I guess the copyright police wrote a threatening email, or something. Ah well…

The name’s Tectonidis. Milton Tectonidis.

And the award for “cool name of the day” goes to Milton Tectonidis, who’s a nutrition specialist for MSF according to this piece on how “Plumpy Nut” is saving lives in Niger [robot].

Google Maps now has satellite imagery.

The Google Maps satellite picture of the UWS campus predates the Digital Technium (for now).

Intersting also that we have higher-res of Swansea than of Cardiff. So I can see where I live quite clearly, but not where I used to live. Also managed to clearly pick out the Eiffel Tower (nice shadow!), the Vatican, and the Palace of Westminster fairly easily. Not in Swansea, though. K2 and Everest more elusive, particularly the former. Singapore still at lo-res (nice clouds, however!), but Beijing central high enough for a very clear shot of the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace is still hazy, however.

Simon‘s a cartophile in the true sense but me, I just love maps because of the imaginary journeys they take me on. As such, I’ve been waiting for this all my life. It’s just gonna keep getting better, with more detail, more 3-d, more up-to-date imagery, and better navigation. What an amazing age to live in.

Google Earth – like, wow.

Oh, the beauty of it [robot].

EEPI 2005

Also interesting, also in RISKS: EEPI 2005, Conference on Electronic Entertainment Policies, Problems, Solutions, held where else but Los Angeles? The call is very carefully worded and I particularly enjoyed “This will not be a place for finger-pointing or name-calling.” I guess the organisers know just how contentious this whole issue is.

Here’s the RISKS post, which is basically the same announcement from the conference web page.

Squeezing a canteloupe out of your nose

The War on Rationality – brought to you by a stork in a messenger cap [null].

Wise words, mate

Via Bash, a slightly long and not-quite-safe-for-work, but really rather good French advert for AIDS awareness.

Classroom Chaos

Who would want to teach in a UK school today? [robot]. Channel Five documentary on Wednesday…

‘The way teachers’ authority has been eroded is key,’ she said. ‘It is not simply that there is no respect for teachers or authority but that the children are actually in control of the schools. They own them and the teachers have no power to take that control back.’

Thomas illustrates her point with an incident when a boy walked out of her class during a lesson. ‘If I tried to stop him leaving by taking his arm, it would have been his word against mine that I hadn’t abused him and I would be suspended while the incident was investigated, which could take three years. My name would be in the local press and my reputation as a teacher would be destroyed. The children are very worldly-wise: they know they have this power.’

Cheap Broadband vs the ISPs in the US of A

Strange things apparently happening with broadband provision in the Land Of The Free – ISPs and monopoly interests buying legislation to prevent cheap local community wireless networks undercutting them [robot].

Interesting, isn’t it…? If market forces were the only factors at play here, the telcos and ISPs would be losing this battle. But instead, the market is self aware, and sufficiently successful companies can modify the environment in which they must operate. Time to ask again, if aliens arrived tomorrow, what would they consider to be the dominant life form on the planet? People? Cars? Or companies?

Pictures of Walls

www.picturesofwalls.com – in fact seems to be mainly concerned with graffiti on walls rather than just being pictures of the walls themselves, which I found slightly disappointing; gladly, the graffiti is good [rivets].


Another good reason not to vote Labour

It was nice to see that the government’s plans for ID cards have been dropped, but if you want another reason not to vote Labour, it’s that they plan to reintroduce the plans should (when?) they win the election in May.

It’s not that I’m ideologically opposed to ID cards: in an ideal world, yes, they’d be a good thing and ordinary people would have nothing to fear. However, this is not an ideal world, and I have zero faith in the government’s ability to implement them properly. The IT infrastructure will be critical and as identify fraud becomes more and more popular, a single ID card is an obvious target. The UK has an appalling track record when it comes to large public sector IT projects – whether developed in-house or outsourced to the so-called experts, who then deliver late, over budget, or not at all. It’s just a recipe for disaster.

But don’t believe me: believe the London School Of Economics [schneier].

The Report concludes that the establishment of a secure national identity system has the potential to create significant, though limited, benefits for society. However, the proposals currently being considered by Parliament are neither safe nor appropriate. There was an overwhelming view expressed by stakeholders involved in this Report that the proposals are too complex, technically unsafe, overly prescriptive and lack a foundation of public trust and confidence. The current proposals miss key opportunities to establish a secure, trusted and cost-effective identity system and the Report therefore considers alternative models for an identity card scheme that may achieve the goals of the legislation more effectively. The concept of a national identity system is supportable, but the current proposals are not feasible.

Brian says: vote Lib Dem

Lib Dem This Time – Brian Eno argues (as he has for the last ten years) that it’s time for the Lib Dems to take over from the Conservatives as the opposition in the UK.

Powered by Mambo, I note.

What the World Bank is for

What the World Bank is for and why Wolfowitz is the natural choice to head it. [robot]

“America’s Has-Been Economy” ?

Outsourcing goes to the next level: research & design – suddenly the west does not, in fact, lead the world, technologically?[robot]

Business Week reports that practically overnight large percentages of cell phones, notebook PCs, digital cameras, MP3 players, and personal digital assistants are produced by original-design manufacturers. Business Week quotes an executive of a Taiwanese ODM: “Customers used to participate in design two or three years back. But starting last year, many just take our product.”

… The design and engineering teams of Asian ODMs are expanding rapidly, while those of major US corporations are shrinking. Business Week reports that R&D budgets at such technology companies as Hewlett Packard, Cisco, Motorola, Lucent Technologies, Ericsson, and Nokia are being scaled back.

Bad news for the future, if you ask me.

Update 2005-03-20: though of course, consumer electronics isn’t the only metric of an economy’s health or a country’s ability to dominate, and I’m sure the US hi-tech weapons industry ain’t outsourcing so enthusiastically… ;-)

map24.com – w00t for the UK

I’ve been meaning to put this on the front page for a few weeks now… As pointed out by Krag Wad, if you’re in the UK (or Europe in general), then map24.com is a darn nifty map site a la google maps only different. In particular it’s got a very nifty zoomy-inny-outy interface, and does fun thinks like temporarily zooming out if you hold down an arrow key to scroll, which gives you a nice “whooooaaaah, I’m flyyyyyyyiiiiing” kinda experience. You usually overshoot your goal when doing this, however – they should stop and drop as soon as you release, if you ask me. Anyway, it rocks – check it out.

Christian women and sports

This just in: world still full of idiots.

Underwater gnomes considered harmful

Underwater gnomes considered harmful (also here) [null].

Wastwater’s a really beautiful but incredibly imposing place. And I am reminded that I have a couple of films of Lake District photos I really should upload some time…

More bergy business

More iceberg news, with an update from the horse’s mouth.

The Ice Dance

The Ice Dance Commences – the further adventures of B15A, neatly packaged for your viewing pleasure by Jason Coleman. Nice.

The Rise of American Fascism

The Rise of American Fascism [rivets].

Looks like quite interesting stuff, with some nice imagery – kids saluting the flag of course, and a 1925 KKK rally in Washington with 400,000 in attendance. But what particularly made me want to link through was the appearance on this Ku Klux Klan poster of that favourite lie of authoritarians everywhere that “No law abiding citizen need fear…”.

We interrupt this broadcast…

Just one more quick post before the Christmas shutdown – honest! Look, I’m ready to go, it’s Bash who’s in the shower. OK? OK… So anyway, this is cool: four hours of satellite broadcast intended for mainland China was replaced with a program concerning the outlawed Falun Gong movement. So there we have it, kids: you’ve seen how it’s done in the movies, now get out there and broadcast. ;-)

Kinsey vs the anti-sexuals

Interesting review of a movie about Alfred Kinsey at Alternet [via pursed lips].

It’s depressing to see him vilified by the kind of people who think the world needs an organisation called “Restoring Social Virtue and Purity”, and in light of recent (and ongoing) opposition to the theory of evolution in America’s Stupidity Belt, I found this quote from the article unwittingly on-the-mark:

It was the apparent impartiality of his data that so shook America’s settled notions of sexuality, as deeply as Darwin’s theory of natural selection did the literalist biblical notions of creation.

Ultimately, I’m just baffled: Why does America have such a love affair with violence, and such a hatred of sex? And with the rise of evangelical politics in the most powerful nation on Earth (for now), how much worse can it get?

Big chunks of water at minus 70

The Guardian has a story about an iceberg, B15A, which was first mentioned hereabouts in Gimboland’s 20th post ever, February 2001. Nice to know it’s still going – shame about the penguins, though…

Lots more groovy antarctic images here. It’s somewhere I’d love to see, though God knows if I ever will…


The Soma of history – very interesting.

War on drugs equals better coke

So it seems that America’s war on drugs is leading to better, and more, cocaine, and discouraging Columbian farmers from growing non-drugs crops. How so, you ask? The emergence (or, possibly, genetic engineering) of a herbicide-resistant strain of cocoa means that the crop sprayers are doing the farmers’ weeding for them, and wiping out farmers who grow bananas, yucca, maize, well, basically anything else.

Of course, there is another intruguing possible explanation… Perhaps the Roundup-resistant cocoa was introduced to the system by the US. Perhaps the plan is to get all the farmers growing that strain and no other (which seems, from the story, to be happening). Perhaps this strain has been engineered not only to be Roundup resistant, but also to be particularly susceptible (perhaps the only plant susceptible?) to some other herbicide. Perhaps, when everyone in Columbia is growing the new cocoa strain and all the old ones have effectively become extinct, the authorities will switch herbicides and wipe out the entire crop in one fell swoop…

Now that would be impressive. I don’t believe it for one second, but it would be impressive.

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