Tagcapitalism

Beyond Growth – Technoccult interviews Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller

Duff McDuffee
Above: Duff McDuffee

Eric Schiller
Above: Eric Schiller

Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller run the blog Beyond Growth, a site dedicated to bringing some much needed criticism to the modern “personal development” business. Duff and Eric joined me via instant message from Boulder, CO and Belingham, WA respectively to answer some questions about the field.

Klint Finley: I suppose we should begin by first talking a little bit about “personal development” – what is it, how did this business emerge?

Duff McDuffee: You mean the field itself?

Klint: Right. Personal development as a business.

Eric Schiller: Duff is probably a bit more of an expert on that particular question, but I’ll add my thoughts to his response.

Napoleon Hill holding a copy of his book Think and Grow Rich
Napoleon Hill holding a copy of his book Think and Grow Rich

Duff: Ok. Well, from what I understand it largely emerged in the early 20th century when New Thought religious ideas became popular and were applied to worldly success. The basic idea was contained in such books as Think and Grow Rich and As a Man Thinketh.

The notion was that you could create stuff with the power of your mind. The correlary is that if you aren’t getting what you want, you need to do a kind of mental hygeine and clean up your stinkin’ thinkin’ (to quote Zig Ziglar).

So you have people like Napolean Hill, who died broke by the way, writing books on how to get rich by visualizing and affirming one’s future wealth.

Eric: In Douglas Rushkoff’s book Life Inc. he argues that ‘personal development’ or self help found its place in corporations, in order to help the remaining staff become more efficient after job cuts.

Thus personal development has deep capitalistic roots, based in becoming more useful for society, and or your particular corporate persuasion.

The Bobs

Duff: Yes, an excellent point Eric. Books like Who Moved My Cheese encouraged employees to “embrace change” and stay positive while they were being downsized for no fault of their own to make short-term profits for stakeholders. Barbara Ehrenreich covers this too in Bright Sided.

Whether or not this was intended, personal development functions as a perfect religion for capitalism. Pray for money and consumer goods and social status, and take 100% responsibility even when your circumstances are largely determined by social structures and institutions that are not in your direct control.

Eric: The early gurus cherry picked from Maslow and Jung – whatever ideas sounded good at the time.

Duff: Today’s gurus still do

Klint: OK. So how does this – or does it – tie into other areas like “self-help,” “lifehacking,” and, most recently, “lifestyle design”?

Eric: Personal development and self help are effectively the same, personal development is a more recent name for the same thing.

Duff: They are all synonyms as far as I’m concerned, rebranding.

Eric: Life hacking is different, but I think it is in effect, part of the same trope. Life hacking is a branch of hacking culture, it is really technologically based, but is all about “bettering oneself” so it has taken on the goal of PD or self help.

Duff: “Lifehacking” seems to me to be another name for geeking out on consumer gadgets and software for the most part. I mean if you really want to hack your life, do Vipassana meditation, or read Hegel, or take acid (not my preference, but that will seriously hack some stuff up).

Tim Ferris
Above: Tim Ferris goofing off while his employees do all his work.

Eric: The strange place is where the lifestyle designers and the life hackers collide, there you get people like Tim Ferris

Duff: Lifestyle design is interesting because only the privileged count as designing their lives. When a Mexican immigrates to the U.S. in order to have a better life for himself and his family, it isn’t lifestyle design. In fact, most lifestyle design focuses on 1st world young men with laptops who do freelancing living in developing nations to get a good exchange rate.

Eric: Yeah, lifestyle design itself is very priveledged, and only high-end consumers tend to get into it. They believe it is not consumption, but in reality it functions as a higher almost more evil form of consumption.

Duff: Part of the lifestyle design ethos involves an “escape from corporate jobs” which is of course nonsense. The first thing a lifestyle designer does is create an LLC in his or her own name, then engage in personal branding, and often exploit cheap overseas labor. The corporate ethos has been driven deeper, not avoided.

Klint: Well, it’s been escaped for the person doing the designing – but not for anyone who’s being outsourced to.

Duff: Right. So lifestyle design is really in the same boat as those business books on how to think like a CEO. But it plays off a countercultural branding.

Klint: Well, let me ask you guys this: is there anything so wrong with wanting to escape the corporate 9-to-5? Are they really hurting anyone by bringing business to these countries?

Eric: I think that question isn’t really getting at what is going on on these blogs. Tim Ferris offers to his readers “escaping the 9-5” but in reality, he hasn’t done it himself. To him, “work” is doing stuff you don’t like, and the rest is fun. To him, a lot of the “fun” makes him money. Ferris works his butt off on his image and his books.

Klint: You’re right, becuase most of what’s actually going on, so far as I can tell, is these guys are going around having a blast and selling shady “info products” to marks with the promise that they can do what they do.

Eric: Ferris is offering a facade to his readers, that they can “make it” by doing very little work. This is really not a new idea, and has been offered in a multitude of self-help/business bookis.

Duff: What’s remarkable about Tim Ferris is that in his book he openly brags about cheating at Tango and martial arts. He used a radical dehydration technique to enter a much lower weight class, then pushed his opponents out of the ring and won on a technicality. This is the kind of business sense he is teaching–how to exploit loopholes in the rules for personal fame and profit.

It’s not really that surprising that Ferris is therefore the guru’s guru when it comes to shady internet marketing schemes that promise get rich/lifestyle quick.

Jonathan Mead
Jonathan Mead. What a rebel!

Eric: Additionally “escaping” is an extension of the American dream, of beating capitalism and making it your bitch. It isn’t an emancipatory dream like Ferris likes to pitch it. Someone I’m critical of, Jonathan Mead took Ferris’ ideas further and claimed that he was part of a “revolution.” This is a bigger problem.

Chris Guillebeau is also guilty of ‘revolutionizing’ lifestyle design. The problem is that it makes business as usual capitialism seem like a new revolution to the consumers, thus making it impossible for a real anti-capitalist movment to take hold. People are mesmerized by the same old promises.

Seth Godin

Duff: The revolutionary rhetoric really goes all the way back to Seth Godin, the ur-guru of personal development bloggers. Godin encourages marketers to use the techniques and rhetoric of grassroots political organizing to sell your info products to 1000 true fans. Instead of white papers, you get these PDF “manifestos” which are all a variation of a neo-liberal capitalist manifesto.

While there is nothing necessarily wrong with selling stuff on the internet and making a living doing it, to pretend that this is a revolutionary political act is ludicrous.

In more than one PDF white paper “manifesto” that I’ve read, the authors have specifically said that one should not vote or engage politically in any way. Steve Pavlina has said similar things. Most personal development bloggers advocate for avoiding the news because it is “negative.” All these things combine to destroy our political power by solely focusing on personal power.

Klint: I always thought that militant apoliticalism was a way of appealing to more people by avoiding taking any controversial political stance.

Duff: Could be, yes. But within that apparently apolitical view, when you scrape past the surface, is a radical neo-liberalism.

Eric: Klint, have you read the Porto Davos essay by Zizek? His notion of liberal communism fits perfectly to these lifestyle design gurus.

Klint: I haven’t read that essay, no.

So it sounds like it’s a pretty greasey business. Is there any value at all in it – is there anyone out there in that business worth commending?

Duff: Sure, there are some. I like Scott H. Young for the most part, although I don’t agree with him on a lot of points.

Eric: There are some people we like, but it really isn’t cut and dry to derermine who. I think it is important for individuals to develop themselves, but there is a lot of merit to the idea that you cannot just read what someone is telling you to do, and then directly apply it to your life. There is some barrier there, that prevents the ideas from becoming real habits.

Lucy from Peanuts

Klint: OK. So where does life coaching fit into this?

Duff: Life Coaching is interesting. I was a life coach for a while.

Life coaching feels really good for both coach and client. It’s really easy work and you get paid really well. It’s like being a therapist with only sane clients.

Klint: And without having to get a master’s degree. Or any degree for that matter.

Duff: Honestly, I think people really benefit from coaching, probably because we are so alienated that many people never have any meaningful conversations in their lives at all. But it is waaaaaaaaaay too expensive, and quickly becomes a massive ego trip and a huge financial scam. I don’t think there is any significant difference whatsoever between a $40/hour life coach and a $5000/hour life coach.

Another potential problem with coaching is that it outsources our meaningful conversations to specialists. If you have a Big Win in your life, who do you share this with first–your wife, or your life coach? Maybe your wife is stressed out and not that good of a listener anyhow. It is more efficient to share with your coach who will celebrate you unconditionally. But this takes away intimacy from your marriage, increasing your alienation.

Klint: So you don’t think that life coaching should be regulated like professional counseling?

Duff: Not really, no. I don’t like regulating meaningful conversation.

Eric: “Life coaching” is very broad. Most “life coaches” in reality are business coaches.

Duff: Yup.

Eric: Overall few focus on personal problems like getting along with others, self-esteem etc. These people are in it for the money.

Duff: The field overall is highly problematic and structured like a pyramid scheme. The most “successful” coaches are meta-coaches, i.e. they coach coaches on building their practice.

But within that, there are some really great people who are very helpful to their clients.

Eric: I asked a coach recently what the breakdown was of his clients, and a lot of them were bloggers and life coaches themselves. Very masturbatory.

Duff: To be fair, many healing professions are circle jerks. Massage therapists often have many massage therapists as clients

Klint: I can imagine if you spend all day giving massages, you’re really going to want a massage at the end of the week.

Duff: Yeah, my lady is a massage therapist. She needs her own bodywork to do bodywork on others. You get really sore.

BTW, my life coach is currently in jail for running an illegal Ponzi scheme.

Pyramid scheme

Klint: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that Duff, in relation to regulation Because if this guy is found guilty and sentenced and goes to prison – he could come right out and go right back to life coaching.

Duff: Sure. But he wouldn’t go to prison for life coaching fraud, but securities fraud. If he robbed a house he shouldn’t be barred from driving a car. Two different fields.

Klint: Yeah, but do you really think someone who goes to prison for securities fraud should being giving life advice?

Duff: I actually have a blog post in the works about this. The issues are complex and the facts aren’t all in yet. I’m not sure anyone is qualified to give life advice. But some people are pretty good at listening and asking poignant questions.

Eric: Who should be giving life advice anyway? It all comes down to the dispersion of a variety of ideologies.

Duff: Agreed.

Eric: Securites fraud just means that they broke the rules of capitalism.

Duff: The funny thing is his “Dharma Investments Group” was making similar errors as the big wigs. Who’s fault was the bubble anyway? Certainly fraud is fraud, but when the conservative bankers are doing similar things, all the normal rules go out the window.

Eric: Capitalism encourages people to stretch the rules, some people just get caught. I’d consider a full-of-air guru to be a worse person than someone comitting securites fraud.

Duff: It’s a spectrum of fraud and we’re all on it. Personally I think we can’t go much longer with interest-bearing currency before the whole monetary system collapses.

Klint: I don’t know the details of what that guy got himself into, but it’s hard for me excuse a guy who’s getting normal people to fork over their savings for some investment and then basically stealing their money. It doesn’t really matter what level he’s playing on…

Duff: I understand. It looks really bad for him! I certainly won’t be receiving his services anymore. But I stopped going to him about 5 years ago anyhow.

Klint: …that sounds like someone who’s pretty ethically challenged, y’know?

Duff: Or manic. Making impossible promises.

Klint: But yeah, he could get out of jail, move to another town, assume an alias, never have to disclose any of this… It’s very problmatic I think.

Eric: My point is that gurus do similar things. They take lay people and promise them all sorts of things, lead them on, and then leave them with nothing. James Ray was convincing his followers to go into debt to pay for his $10,000 seminars.

Klint: But to be honest, I don’t think there’d be a decent way to regulate life coaching anyway.

Duff: I don’t think so either. Some fields like coaching/healing and miracle cure supplements will always consistute the wild west …that and spirituality, faith healing, charismatics, etc. And yet, that is what is beautiful about these things too. You get these really wild characters with amazing insights or healing abilities or compassion etc. in the same arenas with the psychopaths and scam artists.

A total shitbag
Above: a complete and total shitbag

Klint: So it kind of leads me to another question – does it really matter that much? If people are willing to shell out obscene amounts of money for whatever – personal development products, life coaching, snake oil… are they basically getting what they deserve?

Duff: Well, personal responsibility does come into play to some extent, but we don’t want to go as far as blaming the victim.

Eric: I think they’ve been effectively brainwashed. So I suppose the question is, does a brainwashed person deserve the consquences of things they did not initiate?

Duff: I went to this particular life coach out of my own greed to be a wealthy life coach, for example. But his investors in his scheme retain their legal rights to sue. One of the reasons I like living in Colorado is that there is little regulation over healing practices and therapies. You can practice as an unlicensed psychotherapist here. So we have tons of innovative approaches to healing and changework. Yet the flipside is we have tons of new wage snake oil and BS. It goes together.

So…I’ve got to run now as I’m meeting up with someone. Hope that is ok. You guys can continue chatting if you’d like. I enjoyed this and would be happy to do it again. Let me know when it is posted, Klint!

Klint: OK, thanks for your time Duff!

Duff: Thanks to you too for the suggestion.

Klint: Do you guys have any further plans or is Beyond Growth winding down?

Eric: We’ll see. A lot of the reason we haven’t been posting much lately is that we are bored of where the field is going, and it is difficult to get excited about the same old. Both Duff and I had dreams of writing books and being guru-like long before we started BG.

I’ve thought about opening it up to more authors, or changing the scope a little. Once we start writing again we’ll definitely be taking a different direction. Less harsh criticism, more covert, careful writing with perhaps a few more ideas for people to ponder. Just going after gurus gets a bit tedious after a while.

Considering how harsh we are, we’ve been recieved very well by the community though.

Recommended Beyond Growth posts

The 4-Minute Mile and the Myths of Positive Thinking

Social Media: Moving Towards A Brave New World? (Here are my comments on this post)

The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens

Pay your bills on time? There’s a fee for that.

You floss regularly, yield to oncoming traffic and use your credit cards judiciously, dutifully paying off your balance every month.

You may believe that your exemplary behavior shields you from unexpected credit card fees. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Starting next year, Bank of America will charge a small number of customers an annual fee, ranging from $29 to $99. The bank has characterized the fee as experimental. But card holders who have never carried a balance or paid late fees could be among those affected.

Citigroup, meanwhile, has started charging annual fees to card holders who don’t put more than a specific amount on their cards, typically $2,400 a year. Other banks are charging inactivity fees if customers don’t use their credit cards during a specific period of time. You heard that right: You could be spanked for staying out of debt.

USA Today: Pay your bills on time? There’s a charge for that.

Also: Citibank is randomly closing credit cards without warning.

SEC hires Goldman vice president for enforcement

Talk about putting wolves in charge of protecting sheep…

A former Goldman Sachs (GS.N) vice president has been named the chief operating officer of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division, the regulator said on Friday.

Adam Storch, who was a vice president in Goldman’s “business intelligence group,” will be responsible for managing projects and other operational aspects of the SEC’s enforcement division, the agency said.

Reuters: US SEC hires Goldman vice president for enforcement

75 years since the San Francisco general strike

sanfrancisco general strike

Looong article on the San Francisco general strike:

On May 9, 1934, San Francisco longshoremen went out on strike against West Coast ship owners, igniting a movement of 35,000 maritime workers of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) that shut down 2,000 miles of Pacific coastline from Bellingham, Washington, to San Diego, California.

Driven by the determination and militancy of the rank and file, this 83-day struggle defied the employers’ Industrial Association of San Francisco, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s federal mediators, the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) union leadership, and culminated in the San Francisco general strike.

The San Francisco strike combined with two other momentous labor struggles in 1934 to alter the American political landscape—the Toledo Auto-Lite strike led by socialists in the American Workers Party, and the Minneapolis truck drivers strike led by Trotskyists in the Communist League of America. These three strikes—which were, in essence, rebellions not only against business interests but also against the business unionism of the AFL—paved the way for the pivotal victories of Detroit auto workers in sit-down strikes led by socialist-minded workers in 1937 and the formation of the mass industrial unions in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations.)

World Socialist Worker: 75 years since the San Francisco general strike

(via Nick P)

The Netherlands Paradox – Capitalism and Socialism

I spent my initial months in Amsterdam under the impression that I was living in a quasi-socialistic system, built upon ideas that originated in the brains of Marx and Engels. This was one of the puzzling features of the Netherlands. It is and has long been a highly capitalistic country — the Dutch pioneered the multinational corporation and advanced the concept of shares of stock, and last year the country was the third-largest investor in U.S. businesses — and yet it has what I had been led to believe was a vast, socialistic welfare state. How can these polar-opposite value systems coexist? […]

The collaboration goes all the way to the top, where something called the Social Economic Council — consisting of trade-union, business and government representatives — advises the government on major issues. “It’s possible because our trade unions still play a prominent role,” said Alexander Rinnooy Kan, the chairman of the council. “In the U.S., the relationship between employers and unions is adversarial, but here we’ve learned there’s a joint interest in working together.”

There is another historical base to the Dutch social-welfare system, which curiously has been overlooked by American conservatives in their insistence on seeing such a system as a threat to their values. It is rooted in religion. “These were deeply religious people, who had a real commitment to looking after the poor,” Mak said of his ancestors. “They built orphanages and hospitals. The churches had a system of relief, which eventually was taken over by the state. So Americans should get over ‘socialism.’ This system developed not after Karl Marx, but after Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi.” […]

This points up something that seems to be overlooked when Americans dismiss European-style social-welfare systems: they are not necessarily state-run or state-financed. Rather, these societies have chosen to combine the various entities that play a role in social well-being — individuals, corporations, government, nongovernmental entities like unions and churches — in different ways, in an effort to balance individual freedom and overall social security.

New York Times: Going Dutch – How I Learned to Love the European Welfare State

(via Richard Metzger)

See also: Matthew Yglesias’s hoorah for the European welfare state.

Wyatt Cenac on the Horrors of Socialism in Sweden

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
The Stockholm Syndrome
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 2
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis First 100 Days

Very interesting bit: the Swedish MP explains that Sweden has a trade surplus and lends money to the US (we, of course, have a massive trade deficit).

There is, of course, a contrarian view: that the trade deficit is not a bad thing. That it is, in fact, a good thing:

The Causes and Consequences of the U.S. Trade Deficit


Are Trade Deficits Really Bad News?

(a case that seems less and less reality-based every day)

Richard Metzger’s new show: Dangerous Minds, episode one

Since I’ve been a little soft of socialism lately, here are some thoughts on this episode: they talk a lot about the problems with capitalism and the need for more welfare to support the large numbers of people who will be unemployed long term as the economy continues to change.

However, they do not propose any real solutions (granted, this is just a short interview). The Welfare State needs a tax base to fund its social programs. Metzger mentions that he doesn’t see the market proposing any solutions to our problems. “The market” (a dubious term in its own right – what we should actual say is “private industry”) is perhaps the only thing proposing solutions – alternative energy, biotechnology, and other initiatives to increase actual, non-fictitious capital. Even solutions like permaculture, co-ops, credit unions, and alternative currency are “market” solutions, in that they are they are the private undertakings.

The good news is that McCain was, probably inadvertently, right when he said that the “fundamentals of our economy are strong.” We remain amongst the largest manufacturing countries in the world and one of the biggest exporters in the world. (Here’s an interesting article about the modern US manufacturing industry)

The bad news of course, we’re all familiar with: heavy debt both as a nation and as individuals, lack of individual savings, a serious trade deficit, etc. Some of these problems may have some governmental solutions. But redistribution of wealth require wealth to redistribute, and tariffs and trade regulation require commerce to regulate (whatever the advantages and disadvantages may be). This is what “the market” is good for.

Rest of the episode after the jump.

Libertarian critique of Braudel and/or Wallerstein?

Can anyone point me to a decent libertarian/laissez faire/Austrian-style/whatever critique of the work of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School and/or Immanuel Wallerstein‘s work and the World System Approach?

I’ve searched the usual suspects: Reason, Cato, and Mises. All I’ve found were a few citations, and some blog comments that mention them. The blog comments were… insubstantial.

The Big Takeover: How Wall Street Insiders are Using the Bailout to Stage a Revolution

Full text of Matt Taibi’s recent Rolling Stone article on the bailout:

So that’s the first step in wall street’s power grab: making up things like credit-default swaps and collateralized-debt obligations, financial products so complex and inscrutable that ordinary American dumb people – to say nothing of federal regulators and even the CEOs of major corporations like AIG – are too intimidated to even try to understand them. That, combined with wise political investments, enabled the nation’s top bankers to effectively scrap any meaningful oversight of the financial industry. In 1997 and 1998, the years leading up to the passage of Phil Gramm’s fateful act that gutted Glass-Steagall, the banking, brokerage and insurance industries spent $350 million on political contributions and lobbying. Gramm alone – then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee – collected $2.6 million in only five years. The law passed 90-8 in the Senate, with the support of 38 Democrats, including some names that might surprise you: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Dick Durbin, even John Edwards.

The act helped create the too-big-to-fail financial behemoths like Citigroup, AIG and Bank of America – and in turn helped those companies slowly crush their smaller competitors, leaving the major Wall Street firms with even more money and power to lobby for further deregulatory measures. “We’re moving to an oligopolistic situation,” Kenneth Guenther, a top executive with the Independent Community Bankers of America, lamented after the Gramm measure was passed.

The situation worsened in 2004, in an extraordinary move toward deregulation that never even got to a vote. At the time, the European Union was threatening to more strictly regulate the foreign operations of America’s big investment banks if the U.S. didn’t strengthen its own oversight. So the top five investment banks got together on April 28th of that year and – with the helpful assistance of then-Goldman Sachs chief and future Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson – made a pitch to George Bush’s SEC chief at the time, William Donaldson, himself a former investment banker. The banks generously volunteered to submit to new rules restricting them from engaging in excessively risky activity. In exchange, they asked to be released from any lending restrictions. The discussion about the new rules lasted just 55 minutes, and there was not a single representative of a major media outlet there to record the fateful decision.

CommonDreams: The Big Takeover: How Wall Street Insiders are Using the Bailout to Stage a Revolution

This is the most comprehensive, clear, and funniest article I’ve read on the bailout yet.

It’s curious that Taibi doesn’t even mention Fannie and Freddie in this article, however.

Rules for the Cult of Capitalism

Socialism is on the rise in America. Capitalists are on the defensive. So I’ve put together a handy list of rules to use whenever debating anyone who doubts the power of the Flying Invisible Market Hand to solve all life’s problems.

1. When market liberalization has a positive impact (such as in Chile), this is a victory for capitalism. When market liberalization has a negative impact (the recent economic meltdown), it’s because there is government intervention somewhere and free markets don’t really exist (therefore, capitalism is not responsible).

2. When they are doing things you don’t like, countries like Venezuela and Norway are socialist and therefore doomed to fail. But if someone makes the argument that socialism can work and uses these countries as examples, point out that they are actually capitalist.

3. When the government charges for its services (taxes), this is theft. When private enterprises charge for food and rent, this is just.

4. Theft is the worst crime known to man. It is a far worse that rich people are forced to pay taxes (if their accountants can’t get them out of it) than that poor children are allowed to go hungry.

5. Speaking of which: capitalism is both the fairest AND the toughest philosophy. If you think it’s unjust that children starve, you’re a pussy and need to awaken to the harsh realities of life. If you think that progressive income tax is a good idea, then you are an unjust Nazi bastard.

6. As an alternative to # 5, you can just claim that the US is actually a socialist nation and therefore starving children in this country are the fault of socialism. However, when it compares favorably to China or Soviet Russia, the US is a capitalist nation (refer to rules # 1 and # 2). Socialism puts naive faith in the nature of humans. But people would be good natured enough to donate to charities if they didn’t have such tax burdens.

7. Even though Karl Marx literally wrote the book on capitalism, his very concept definition of capitalism is “flawed.” Capitalism doesn’t mean what Marx said it meant, it means whatever capitalists say it means. Therefore, his whole critique is invalid. Also: Stalin and Mao killed millions of their own people – therefore nothing Marx said was ever correct.

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