The Age of Uncertainty


We are entering the age of dealing with unknown unknowns – as Brexit and Turkey’s failed coup show

The dark future of Europe

THE Age of Uncertainty is a book and BBC series by the late Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, produced in 1977, about how we have moved from the age of certainty in 19th century economic thought to a present that is full of unknowns.

I still remember asking my economics professor what he thought of Galbraith, one of the most widely read economists and social commentator of his time. His answer was that Galbraith’s version of economics was too eclectic and wide-ranging. It was not where mainstream economics – pumped up by the promise of quantitative models and mathematics – was going.

Forty years later, it is likely that Galbraith’s vision of the future was more prescient than that of Milton Friedman, the leading light of free market economics – which promised more than it could deliver. The utopia of free markets, where rational man would deliver the most efficient public good from individual greed turned out to be exactly the opposite – the greatest social inequities with grave uncertainties of the future. Galbraith said, “wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding”. Perhaps he meant that poverty and necessity was the driver of change, if not of revolution.

The economics profession was always slightly confused over the difference between risk and uncertainty, as if the former included the latter. The economist Frank Knight (they don’t make economists like that anymore) clarified the difference as follows – risk is measurable and uncertainty is not. Quantitative economists then defined risk as measurable volatility – the amount that a variable like price fluctuated around its historical average.

The bell-shaped statistical curve that forms the conventional risk model used widely in economics assumes that there is 95% probability that fluctuations of price would be two standard deviations from the average or mean.

For non-technically minded, a standard deviation is a measure of the variance or dispersion around the mean, meaning that a “normal” fluctuation would be less than two; so if the standard deviation is say 5%, we would not expect more than 10% price fluctuation 95% of the time.

Events like Brexit shock us because the event gave rise to huge uncertainties over the future. Most experts did not expect Brexit – the variance was more than the normal. It was a reversal of a British decision to join the European Union, a five or more standard deviation event – in which the decision is a 180 degree turn. The conventional risk management models, which are essentially linear models that say that going forward or sequentially, the projected risk is up or down, simply did not factor in a reversal of decision.

In other words, we have moved from an age of risk to an age of uncertainty – where we are dealing with unknown unknowns.

There are of course different categories of unknowns – known unknowns (things that we know that we do not know), calculable unknowns (which we can estimate or know something about through Big Data) and the last, we simply do not know what we may never know.

Big Data is the fashionable phrase for churning lots of data to find out where there are correlations. The cost of big computing power is coming down but you would still have to have big databases to access that information or prediction. Most individuals like you and me would simply have to use our instincts or rely on experts to make that prediction or decision. Brexit told us that many experts are simply wrong. Experts are those who can convincingly explain why they are wrong, but they may not be better in predicting the future than monkeys throwing darts.


Five factors

There are five current factors that add up to considerable uncertainty – geopolitics, climate change, technology, unconventional monetary policy and creative destruction.

First, Brexit and the Turkish coup are geo-political events that change the course of history. In its latest forecasts on the world economy, the IMF has called Brexit “the spanner in the works” that may slow growth further. But Brexit was a decision made because the British are concerned more about immigration than nickels and dimes from Brussels. This is connected to the second factor, climate change.

Global warming is the second major unknown, because we are already feeling the impact of warmer weather, unpredictable storms and droughts. Historically, dynastic collapses have been associated with major climate change, such as the droughts that caused the disappearance of the Angkor Wat and Mayan cultures. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and all are failing states because they are water-stressed. If North Africa and the Middle East continue to face major water-stress and social upheaval, expect more than 1 million refugees to flood northwards to Europe where it is cooller and welfare benefits are better.

The third disruptor is technology, which brings wondrous new inventions like bio-technology, Internet and robotics, but also concerns such as loss of jobs and genetic accidents.

Fourthly, unconventional monetary policy has already breached the theoretical boundaries of negative interest rates, where no one, least of all the central bankers that push on this piece of string, fully appreciate how negative interest rates is destroying the business model of finance, from banks to asset managers.

Last but not least, the Austrian economist Schumpeter lauded innovation and entrepreneurship as the engine of capitalism, through what he called creative destruction. We all support innovation, but change always bring about losses to the status quo. Technology disrupts traditional industries, and those disappearing industries will create loss in jobs, large non-performing loans and assets that will have no value.

Change is not always a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another’s loss. It is good when it is a win-win game; but with lack of leadership, it can easily deteriorate into a lose-lose game. That is the scary side of unknown unknowns.

I shall elaborate on how ancient Asians coped with change in the next article.

By Tan Sri Andrew Sheng

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.

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Brexit boosts bitcoin price, Is bitcoin a safe haven?


‘Brexit’ Boosts Bitcoin Price, But Too Early to Call it a Safe Haven

Despite the increase in the price of bitcoin amid the UK’s recent EU referendum, a new research note from Needham & Company asserts it might be too early to call the digital currency a “safe haven” asset.

Global bitcoin prices have risen nearly 6% over the day’s trading to reach a high of $680, a figure up more than $100 from a low of $561.46 on 23rd June. Market observers were quick to assert the increase, which occurred as sentiment in the ‘Brexit’ vote shifted, was a sign this uncertainty had encouraged new investment in the digital currency markets.

However, Needham said its researchers are “hesitant” to call bitcoin a safe haven alongside gold, US Treasurys, yen and USD.

The note reads:

“For one, calling it such obfuscates the fact that bitcoin is a high-risk and volatile investment and, second, bitcoin’s correlation to other traditional safe-haven assets has fluctuated significantly.”

Still, Needham called the ‘Brexit’ a positive for the digital currency market, as it shows that bitcoin has the potential to rally around marcoeconomic uncertainty and on developments within its own technical ecosystem.

“On the one hand, bitcoin is performing like a safe-haven asset but, on the other hand, its newness and dynamism do not resemble US Treasurys or gold,” the note reads.

Ultimately, the note concludes bitcoin might not fit into any existing asset definitions, concluding:

“We believe that bitcoin is something entirely different that does not fit into the normal buckets that investments are typically bracketed into.” – http://www.coindesk.com

Is bitcoin a safe haven against mainstream money mayhem?

We unlock the mystery of the digital currency with a cult following

bitcoin/ n. A type of digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank.

Eh? No wonder so many people are confused about bitcoin. What you see above is the Oxford Online Dictionary definition of what is probably the most fashionable currency in the world. I realise that’s not saying much: currencies don’t usually have cult followings. But if the euro is the nerd no one wants to be seen with, bitcoin is the coolest kid in the class.

Perhaps part of the attraction of bitcoin for techie types is the very fact that it’s such a mystery to everyone else, accustomed as we are to traditional currencies. That makes the bitcoin club very exclusive.

So what is a ‘digital currency’ anyway? How can any kind of real money exist only in a digital form? Well, the two things that enable it to work are a) the fact that there are a finite number of bitcoins in existence, and b) the clever bit of technology that underpins it: the blockchain.

The blockchain is, in a way, the best thing about bitcoin. Safe to say that whatever may happen to bitcoin in the ephemeral world of digital fads, blockchains have a serious future in the technology of payments and money transmission: central banks are already working on what that future might be. Essentially, a blockchain is a record of digital events: in the case of bitcoin, any change in ownership of any one ‘coin’. This record is impossible to change, so it can’t be edited after it has been confirmed. The only way of altering the blockchain is by adding to it, rather than erasing previous entries. And the record is not stored in just one place, but shared across hundreds or thousands of networked computers, making it harder to hack.

The other interesting thing is that the system is anonymous. Unlike a bank or Paypal, which request all sorts of personal details from you, bitcoin doesn’t care who you are. That makes it popular with people who don’t want their financial activities traced, whether because they are extreme libertarians or because they have something to hide. Many users feel a political affinity with the bitcoin concept of a currency that functions independently of any bank, government or institution full of men in suits. As one user told me: ‘Bitcoin doesn’t have a CEO; it has no ability to care either way about who uses it or why.’

But beyond those who want to hide, is bitcoin flourishing among everyday consumers? Well, it’s certainly a growth market. Plenty of people have given it a shot to see what the fuss is about, but it’s the drug-dealing and cybercrime fraternities that allegedly make up a large proportion of bitcoin turnover.

When, for example, the first Silk Road online market-place (a site which mostly sold drugs on the ‘dark web’, the part of the internet inaccessible through normal search engines) was shut down in 2013 by the FBI, the price of bitcoin saw a short-term crash because so many coins had been seized by the US authorities.

But one aficionado who has lived off bitcoin trading for the last two years told me: ‘It’s very convenient to paint the whole [bitcoin user] group as one homogenous entity. But I’ve met people from all sides of the political spectrum in bitcoin forums on the internet.’

What else is bitcoin good for? Charities are keen to use it, especially when transferring money to, say, Africa, because the transaction costs are much smaller than with services such as Western Union. A number of places and websites also accept bitcoin payment (full list at http://www.wheretospendbitcoins.co.uk), including the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, which was the first British pub to join this new marketplace.

But bitcoin, as with any other currency, is still at the mercy of exchange-rate fluctuations. Even the most dedicated bitcoin users agree on this point: it’s no more reliable than any other currency, and possibly less so. In the past, bitcoin prices against US dollars have fluctuated massively in short spaces of time — and with no central authority in control, its market is vulnerable to manipulation.

The same applies to bitcoin as an investment: will it stand the test of time? One benefit — so it is said — is that once 21 million bitcoins have been released, production will stop, meaning that your virtual cash could hold its value, on grounds of scarcity, more than a traditional currency. But some devotees have already raised the question of removing or raising that cap.

Meanwhile, Wall Street has also been showing more interest in the currency, with a bitcoin index introduced on the New York Stock Exchange last year. It also has been gaining traction in countries with unstable currencies or weak banking systems. If the mainstream financiers who brought the world to its knees in 2008 decide to embrace bitcoin, who knows what will happen to it.

So how about bitcoin as a hedge against the Brexit result, or a safe haven in the current round of financial turmoil? Whichever way the EU vote goes, it looks like sterling is in for a torrid time in the short to medium term, and shares have already gone into a bear market. So if you’re looking for somewhere safer to keep your cash, is bitcoin an option?

It’s certainly a volatile proposition: you might make money if your timing is exactly right but if there’s a sudden panic over bitcoin’s future, the bottom could fall out of this market very quickly indeed. There’s always a risk of cyberattack too, especially given that so many bitcoin users tend to be high-level techies.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is the first digital currency to go large — and just look at the fate of other web firsts. Few of the earliest social media networks are still going today; everyone in the digital arena is always looking for the new, new thing.

Bitcoin is an intriguing phenomenon, for sure, but its fate hangs in the balance. Would I risk putting my savings into such a mysterious thing? No, probably not. But a small punt? Well, in an uncertain world, it’s got to be worth a try.

Source: By Camilla Swift The Spectator

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Smartphones going modular


A near-final prototype of Google’s Project Ara. – Photo : ©Google ATAP

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/Mo4GeSil9fU

There has been much talk of modular smartphones this spring, after LG released its G5 handset and Google presented a near-final version of its Project Ara.

Modular smartphones differ from regular mobiles thanks to their “building block” design, made up of various interchangeable modules containing different hardware components. These can be switched quickly and easily to boost performance or replace faulty parts.

The current wave of modular smartphones draws on a concept created by a Dutch designer, Dave Hakkens, whose Phonebloks mobile is based on a set of small modules (processor, hard disk, camera, etc.) that can be easily changed and updated.

Once assembled, they form a smartphone with varying levels of performance and functionality, a bit like a desktop PC. As well as making savings for users, a modular design can also help counter planned obsolescence in smartphones.

This idea inspired Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP), who went on to develop Project Ara. Initially presented as a similar project to Phonebloks, comprising almost as many modules as a smartphone has components, the handset evolved, little by little, into a slightly less ambitious prototype presented at the last Google I/O conference in Mountain View, California.

It now takes the form of a smartphone with just six interchangeable modules, including a second display, a camera, memory, a speaker, etc. The screen, processor and RAM are all grouped together in one core block that cannot be modified. A developers’ kit is due to be released in the fall ahead of a planned consumer launch in 2017.

Another smartphone based on the same idea hails from Finland. However, the PuzzlePhone hasn’t been the focus of anywhere near as much media attention as Google’s concept.

This modular mobile only has three interchangeable blocks: one for the display, another for the battery and one main system block housing the processor, memory and camera. It should go on sale before the end of 2016.

The only modular smartphone currently available to buy is the LG G5, unveiled at the 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, back in February.

This handset has a slide-out bottom for changing the battery in just a few seconds. As well as its removable battery, additional interchangeable elements can be added to the phone, such as camera and audio modules. The LG G5 is out now priced at around $650.

Check out Project Ara in this video below:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/aWW5mQadZAY
Sources: AFP – RelaxNews

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China’s Long March-7 Rocket shipped to South China’s Launch Center, Hainan


https://player.cntv.cn/standard/cntvOutSidePlayer.swf

 

TIANJIN,May 8, 2016 (Xinhua) — A container carrying China’s new-generation Long March-7 rocket is seen at the port in north China’s Tianjin, May 7, 2016. The Long March-7 rocket departed for its launch base in Hainan on Sunday from Tianjin. It has taken researchers eight years to develop
the medium-sized rocket, which can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit, said Li Hong, director of the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institute with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
(Xinhua/Chen Xi)

China’s new-generation Long March-7 rocket departed for its launch base in Hainan on Sunday from north China’s port of Tianjin.

It has taken researchers eight years to develop the medium-sized rocket, which can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit, said Li Hong, director of the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institute with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

“The Long March-7 launch scheduled for late June will be of great significance as it will usher in China’s space lab mission,” said Yang Baohua, deputy manager of the company.

China also plans to launch the heavy lift Long March-5 to transport cargo for the planned space station.

China’s second orbiting space lab, Tiangong-2, will also be launched this fall, and it is scheduled to dock with manned spacecraft Shenzhou-11 in the fourth quarter.

Yang said that the Long March-7 carrier is more environmentally friendly than earlier Long March models. The rocket will
become the main carrier for space launches.

A container carrying China’s new-generation Long March-7 rocket is seen at the port in north China’s Tianjin, May 7, 2016. The Long March-7 rocket departed for its launch base in Hainan on Sunday from Tianjin. It has taken researchers eight years to develop the medium-sized rocket, which can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit, said Li Hong, director of the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institute with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. (Xinhua/Chen Xi)

 

A
container carrying China’s new-generation Long March-7 rocket is seen at the port in north China’s Tianjin, May 7, 2016. The Long March-7
rocket departed for its launch base in Hainan on Sunday from Tianjin. It has taken researchers eight years to develop the medium-sized rocket, which can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit, said Li Hong, director of the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institute with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. (Xinhua/Chen Xi)

 

 

A container carrying China’s new-generation Long March-7 rocket is lifted at the port in north China’s Tianjin, May 7, 2016. The Long March-7 rocket departed for its launch base in Hainan on Sunday from Tianjin. It has taken researchers eight years to develop the medium-sized rocket, which can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit, said Li Hong, director of the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institute with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. (Xinhua/Chen Xi)

 

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China start-up ‘Little Red Book’, Xiaohongshu valued at US$1bil


Colour of success: A Chinese actress dressed as a Red Guard and holding a ‘Little Red Book’ performs in front of a portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at a restaurant in Beijing Xiaohongshu says its name has nothing to do with Mao’s famous tome. — Reuters

HONG KONG: The “Little Red Book” has become a symbol of capitalist success in Communist China.

E-commerce start-up Xiaohongshu, which means “Little Red Book” in Chinese, has raised US$100mil from Tencent Holdings Ltd and other investors at a valuation of about US$1bil, two people familiar with the matter said.

The online shopping site co-founded in 2013 by Charlwin Mao, which connects overseas merchants with local buyers, becomes China’s newest billion-dollar startup. It also attracted investment from Genesis Capital and Tiantu Capital in its latest round, the people said, asking not to be identified because the matter is private.

The funds will help bankroll the Shanghai-based startup’s expansion. Xiaohongshu — which calls itself RED and stresses its name bears no relation to Mao Zedong’s book of quotations – works by letting its mostly younger female users post pictures of favorite products. It then connects them with sellers abroad of everything from Body Shop anti-dandruff shampoo to Lotte peach liquor.

Its fundraising comes as venture capital firms grow more cautious about valuations in China, an economy forecast to grow this year at its slowest pace in a quarter-century.

Genesis Capital is a late-stage investment firm founded by Richard Peng Zhijian, who oversaw Tencent’s investment unit. Genesis and Tencent didn’t respond to e-mailed queries. Calls to Shenzhen-based Tiantu’s general line went unanswered. Xiaohongshu co-founder Mao said he couldn’t immediately comment.

Three-year-old Xiaohongshu claims 17 million registered users on its LinkedIn page and had attracted investment previously from GGV Capital and Zhen Fund.

It specialises in cross-border e-commerce, marketing foreign brands to increasingly wealthy local shoppers.

That’s a market forecast to reach 6.5 trillion yuan (US$1 trillion) by 2016, the state-run Xinhua News Agency cited the Ministry of Commerce as saying in March.

It didn’t elaborate on that figure.

The company says its name has nothing to do with Mao’s famous tome, considered one of the most-printed works in history and known to English-speakers as the “Little Red Book.” The late Communist leader’s book is called “Hong Bao Shu” or “red treasure book” in Chinese. “Why isn’t your website called ‘Little Black Book,’ ‘Little Blue Book,’ ‘Little Purple Book’ or ‘Big Red Book’?” reads a question posted by Xiaohongshu in a section of its website sketching out its origins. “We don’t know. But anyway, our name isn’t because of Hong Bao Shu.” — Bloomberg

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Google car could be its own driver?


Autopilot: Google’s new self-driving car during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, California – AP

SAN FRANCISCO: The US agency in charge of highway safety thinks that the autonomous car built by Google-parent Alphabet could qualify as being its own driver.

In a written response to a query from the Silicon Valley-based technology firm, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that since the self-driving cars lacks steering wheels or other controls for humans, it is “more reasonable to identify the driver as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”

Google reveals self-driving car slip-ups

While the administration’s response didn’t change rules of the road, it is seen as a green light of sorts for getting autonomous vehicles to market.

“Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant,” US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a written statement release on Wednesday.

“But, the burden remains on self-driving car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards.”

Foxx added that the NHTSA is “taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways.”

Alphabet said that it is considering the letter and had no further comment.

The feedback, however, promises to be encouraging given the time and resources that Alphabet has poured into developing self-driving cars.

A potential bump in the road popped up in December, when California motor vehicle department officials proposed self-driving car regulations that included mandating that a person could take the wheel if needed.

Google’s self-driving cars to compete with Uber: report

A draft set of rules released by the California Department of Motor Vehicles for a public comment phase do not allow for legal operation of an autonomous car being tested by Google because it lacks a steering wheel or foot pedal controls.

“We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here,” Google told AFP at the time.

California rules-of-the-road for self-driving cars have the potential to set precedent, and the proposed regulations are seen as sure to slow down the speed with which the technology goes mainstream.

The proposed California regulations call for a licensed driver to be in a self-driving car and able to take control in the event of a technology failure or other emergency.

US pledges $4b to speed self-driving cars

Google has been testing self-driving cars on California roads for a while, and an array of automobile makers including Audi, Ford, Mercedes, Lexus, Tesla and BMW are working on building self-driving capabilities into vehicles.

The US administration pledged in January to help clear the way for autonomous vehicles with an investment of $4 billion to fund research and testing projects.- AFP

We don’t need billionaire philanthropists, we need change !


Society needs people who adopt business models that can enrich ordinary people’s lives and free them from a life bound by servitude and dependency.

These days we praise charitable donations and philanthropy; however, we must understand that they are the symptoms of a dysfunctional society, not the remedy.

It’s similar to the Red Cross during wartime; they can’t stop the war. In many ways, they propagate the dysfunctions because the biggest funders of these temporary resolutions are also the greatest oppressors of our society, from whom these dysfunctions stem.

There are, for example, many people suffering around the world from curable diseases simply because they don’t have access to proper medical assistance. Why do they have no access? Because they are too poor.

That is to say, this problem is derived from the massive income inequality around the world. If they could earn a sufficient living on their own, they wouldn’t need any charitable aid from developed nations. They don’t need rich philanthropists giving them millions of dollars. What they need is rich philanthropists to stop hoarding money and allow them to make a sustainable living.

Let’s look at Bill Gates, who was simply driven to make as much money as possible at any cost. Along the way, he has smothered many smaller companies, copied others’ ideas, and snuffed out many innovative competing products. Yet, all is forgiven and forgotten because now he donates a lot of money.

It is exactly this type of thinking that breeds income inequality around the world, which leads to people dying from poverty, and thus preserves the need for these billionaire philanthropists to remedy the situation.

Another exemplary indication of this problem is Lance Armstrong. He cheated to further his career and eventually got caught. Yet, today he is still a millionaire and is respected by millions of people: 3.8 million followers on Twitter to be exact. Why? Because he is a philanthropist who donated lots of money to cancer charities. None of this would have happened had he not cheated, but people forgive and forget. In our society, winners prosper no matter the means, as long as they become philanthropists in the end.

Take a moment to think of the other cyclists who didn’t allow themselves to cheat. Where are they now? Can you name them? Are they rich and famous?

To address the real origin of the problem, we need to change the way we go about earning and spending money at the very basic level. Instead of being driven to become philanthropists, treat people around you without greed and with consideration. Make your living and enable others around you to do so as well. If you aim to save money in order to be a philanthropist, you provoke everyone to be protective and hoard money also in order to control how the money gets spent. The more everyone does it, the more we are compelled and even forced to do it. We need to stop this vicious circle.

The resolution I’m putting forward is not a utopian concept. We simply need more people investigating and adopting business models that can enrich ordinary people’s lives, which can free us from a life bound by servitude and dependency.

In turn, this would empower us to solve our societal problems without asking such billionaires to solve them for us with their accumulated wealth. Nowadays I’m starting to see more and more entrepreneurs and business owners trying to figure this out, and it is quite inspiring. I think the real change derives from the ordinary things we do.

If this type of mission is to succeed and be sustained, the principal function of business must be ordinary. It is impossible for a sustainable economy to remain healthy and upright if it is only supported by the crutch of charitable donations and philanthropy.

The principal drive to better our society must come from ordinary businesses.

Hero-worshipping rich benefactors and philanthropists encourages everyone to accumulate more wealth than they need. We do not need billionaire philanthropists; we need ordinary business owners who treat other humans with respect and encouragement.

They are not rare or even uncommon; they exist all around us if we look carefully enough. It’s just that we are so busy looking up to iconic figures like the Bill Gateses of the world that we can’t see them.

By Justin Hiraga

/  Asia News Network

Justin Hiraga is an assistant professor at the Department of International Business Languages of Seokyeong University in Seoul. He can be contacted at jthiraga@gmail.com. –Ed.

 

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