Friday, May 27, 2005

A Day Without an Indonesian 

Only rarely do we get to witness experimental macroeconomics, but here's a little experiment Malaysia tried.

In other Indonesia news, an Australian woman was sentenced to 20 years in an Indonesian prison today for smuggling a few pounds of marijuana. What I find so remarkable about this story is that this sentence is entirely in line with US sentencing guidelines for similar crimes in the United States, and yet it is being reported as shocking news. It is shocking, and I would consider it cruel and unusual punishment, but I'm still surprised to see anyone in this country care about it.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Wow, a Sucky Google Product 

I thought the idea of Google Personal was pretty neat. While Yahoo and other portal sites create these cluttered monstrosities filled with ads, the idea of being able to put a bunch of useful stuff on my homepage is appealing. Google did launch this so that it is simple and free of ads, which I do appreciate very much. Similarly, the easy, dynamic configuration is simply awesome, and does things I didn't know web pages could do. Finally, the fact that they are leaving their regular www.google.com homepage as simple as it was before (instead of trying to sell everyone on it and cluttering it up), is the absolute right thing to do.

However, most of their content offerings are kinda lame. I do like the weather and maps (though it only lets you do driving directions), but Slashdot? Come on. In fact, most of the things you can add on there are kinda sorry: Wired News, Quote of the Day, and only 12 items over all. If you go on over to My Yahoo the number of options they offer for your personal homepage makes Google look pathetic: sports scores, TV listings, comics, many more news items, and so forth. Making Google look as cluttered as Yahoo is against the whole purpose, but if you're gonna make this thing, you need more options than what they're offering.

The whole thing is even lamer at another level, though. In order to use Google Personal, you need to be logged into your Gmail account, even if you don't want it to show you your email inbox when you go to your homepage. Since there's no difference between being logged into Google Personal and Gmail, it means that in order for it to even function, you've got to leave your Gmail account logged in at all times! This is a terrible idea, and it's totally unnecessary. We have proof by existence (Amazon, for example), that a web site can remember who you are and your personal settings without you actually having to be logged into your account. Having to log into your homepage is stupid, and leaving your Google account logged in is a horrible thing to encourage from a security perspective, so I simply cannot believe Google Personal functions this way.

I know it's beta, and I'm sure it'll get better with time, since Google is very good about revising this stuff. But being beta at Google is pretty much meaningless, and everyone knows it. This is the most underwhelming major release in ages.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Today I discovered a book online that I absolutely love. It's called (I think) Ward Farnsworth's Predator at the Chessboard (linked to from Volokh).

There's two things I take from this. The first is that this is probably the best book on Chess that I've ever read for beginners (I am obviously not qualified to comment on more advanced books, being a beginner). I've long known all the rules of the game, but I've never had any idea what I was doing at all. I made a few attempts to figure things out when I was in middle school, but the literature I could find flew over my head and was practically useless (much talk of openings and so forth). So it was a good sign that when I read the beginning of the book, explaining its rationale, I found this paragraph:

What was said about strategy can be said as well about openings. You can spend enormous time mastering the details of an opening―say, the Italian Game or the French Defense. The yield of those efforts, in victories and in fun, probably will be small. You frequently will find that your opponent’s play drags you away from the opening you studied; and even if not, the payoff of a successful opening usually is a minor advantage in position. By itself the advantage will not win you anything or bring you much pleasure. What will bring you immense pleasure, whether or not you know much about openings, is taking your opponent’s pieces. And to do that you need to learn how to use tactics―the weaponry of the chessboard.

This book talks about chess like a human being, explaining the elements of tactics, and how you should be looking at the board, then provides many examples of the same ideas over and over. I'll obviously still get my ass kicked the next time I try to play, and Chess doesn't really fascinate me enough to warrant my investing much time improving my game, but for the first time I felt like I was able to read the board positions provided and figure out a decent picture of what was going on. Well-written, and highly recommended.

The other thing I'll say about this book is that "My God, this is a fantastic way to present a book." If you dig in, you'll find that the book is done in small chunks, with a frame on the left for the board illustration. This is such a fantastic way to present the materials in a book, because when you need to scroll down, you can keep the relevant illustration in sight. I often read math books or economics papers, and find myself having to stick most of the fingers on one hand between different pages to keep an easy reference to the equations or diagrams referenced throughout the text. Imagine if people adopted this sort of organization for math books, easily presenting everything that each chunk of the text refers to while you read. Brilliant.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Microsoft Just Can't Do Consumer Devices 

I feel kind of embarassed for Microsoft after Sony's Playstation 3 announcement last night. I can just imagine the smiles on the faces of Sony executives when they tuned into the MTV special last thursday night. Let me put it this way. When I first started playing the first video clip of the PS3, I thought for a second...just a second, mind you, but there was definitely that instant of confusion...that they were starting off with video footage of a race car being fueled up so that they could compare it to the console's rendering. Of course, it was just the console's rendering the whole time, but that's the point. Here's what the Gamespot editors wrote about Killzone 2:

The models and animations here are so smooth, in fact, that it's tempting to assume that the Killzone 2 footage is prerendered or somehow doctored, but if it is all in-engine, and we have no reason to believe that it's not, then it's going to be hard to imagine a game coming along during E3 that's more visually impressive than this.
I find that caution about what they actually saw telling. Unless Sony is being very misleading by showing pre-rendered footage from a first-person perspective with the "gun-in-hands" view and not showing any actual footage of the game itself, that's pretty much all you need to know about how the next round of the console war will shake out.

Before we knew what the PS3 was going to look like, I was assuming (like many others, I imagine), that Microsoft knew its place in the gaming console world. If you're not the gigantic Sony, then to get a foothold on the market you've got to have some draw that makes people want your console. For Nintendo, that draw is obviously Shigeru Miyamoto and the goldmine of intellectual property they own that allows them to make games for ridiculously underpowered hardware and still sell almost as much as the Xbox. For Microsoft, that draw was having ridiculously overpowered hardware and an architecture that was similar enough to a PC to lure PC developers onto the console.

I think Microsoft was pretty successful in the last round. They entered the market last against two very established console brands, and now stand having sold about 3 million more Xboxes than Nintendo has sold Gamecubes (the statistics I've seen put Sony at about 30 million PS2s, Xbox at around 13 million, and Nintendo at around 11 million). The console had to do entirely without such huge PS2 hits as the Final Fantasy series, the Grand Theft Auto series, and the Metal Gear Solid series, and obviously they never had Mario or Metroid or Zelda like Nintendo did.

Still, starting out with almost no developers, they managed to attract a sizable market. I think without a doubt, Halo was instrumental in drawing gamers to Xbox. You just had to look at the game and it was obvious that no other system was going to offer the graphics or the game experience that Halo could. I think other developers came along to Xbox for two reasons: either they were PC developers for whom moving to the Xbox was a relatively easy step, or they were developers who were hoping to exploit the far superior hardware. Just look at the difference between Splinter Cell on the Xbox (2) and the same game on the PS2 (2). The gamers came along for two different reasons: Xbox Live and the far superior hardware.

Still, Microsoft was obviously frustrated. Not only did Sony's little thing, with its smaller RAM, crappy graphics, and no online functionality, continue to beat them in sales, but Sony made a profit on each one while Microsoft could never turn a profit on the Xbox. Apparently the lesson Microsoft took from this was: release your console first, and make sure you can make money on it.

Neither is a bad thing to do, but Microsoft has probably gone too far in the other direction. With the Xbox they couldn't lower their processor costs very easily because Intel had control of the processor. For the Xbox2, Microsoft has designed their own chip and presumably they'll be able to take advantage of competitive bidding by fabs to lower the costs on the chips, and they've also rushed to get it out to market about a half year before the PS3 comes out. I think both of these moves were mistakes.

The processor issue goes both ways. Using the x86 made it easier for them to get the Xbox to market and it made it easier for game developers to support the console. However, it made it so that the only way they could have backwards compatibility was to continue using the x86 chip, which is really hard to emulate. That has forced them into a difficult position: either they choose backwards compatibility, or face the real possibility that they can never make money on the Xbox. Phrased like that, it's not hard to see why they chose to rip off the bandaid sooner instead of later.

Before the PS3 was announced, I was impressed with Microsoft's PR campaign which kept the Xbox in the news for weeks leading up to the announcement. I also looked at the next Xbox as something that would essentially try to be what the Xbox was in the console market, and so I assumed that Microsoft was using the best components they could get to make sure that the Xbox was going to keep a least a slight RAM, processor, and graphics chip advantage over the PS3, even if it came out sooner.

Now that the PS3 has been announced, it's pretty clear that this is not even close to being the case. The PS3 has as much total RAM as the Xbox2, and its CPU runs the same architecture (PowerPC) and clockspeed as the Xbox2's. But that RAM is connected to an overwhelmingly superior graphics chip from NVidia, and that CPU seems to have much more parallelism than the Xbox2's. The PS3 supports more media types and its games come on much higher-capacity discs. It supports the same high resolution as the Xbox2, but it supports two simultaneous monitors as well. It has built-in WiFi connectivity, and on top of that, it can communicate wirelessly with a PSP to coordinate games like the Dreamcast's little controller screen did. Sony appears to have finally formulated a cohesive online experience as well to rival Xbox Live.

Sony is obviously carefully managing what we know about the PS3 at this point, but it's hard to ignore those screenshots. If Microsoft had something that looked that good, they'd show it. The worst part of it for Microsoft is, all of the interesting games that they announced for the Xbox2 turn out to also be coming out for PS3 as well: Alan Wake, 2 Days to Vegas, Dark Sector, Darkness, Demonik, Splinter Cell 4, Ghost Recon 3. Some of these are going to suck, but it's hard to see the Xbox's gems showing up the PS3, where they will without a doubt look better. It's going to be really hard for Halo 3 and Perfect Dark Zero to overcome this software lineup.

There are some situations that are so stacked against you that not losing completely is a sort of success. By that measure, the Xbox was very successful. It's hard to see any route to similar success for Microsoft here. Microsoft said they would announce whether or not the Xbox2 would be backwards compatible after the PS3 announcement (well, they didn't phrase it like that, but it's clear that's what they were thinking), and after the PS3 was announced, they did say that the Xbox2 would be backwards compatible, but only for certain games. That's not going to do it.

Looking longer-term, I think Microsoft has taken the first losing step in what was a bigger battle: the battle for the consumer living room. Microsoft has said before that they want to be in the living room very, very badly, but they've clearly been outplayed here. The PS3, aside from being a rocking games console, and looking a lot more like sleek appliance to match a sexy LCD TV (slot-loading drive!), is like a universal media adapter attached to your TV set.

Other thoughts: This announcement explains a lot of Sony's previous behavior. They've committed to BluRay for the PS3, and it's hard to imagine them making some compromise with Toshiba over HD-DVD that doesn't keep the BluRay disc structure.

I think this also hurts Apple, the other company that has had a great shot at owning the living room. Apple and Sony have very different strategies for this; so far Apple has been reluctant to sell an appliance for this sort of thing (I don't think that's how they see the Mac Mini), preferring instead to mesh seamlessly into the home through WiFi and devices that work with PCs and stereos and other existing devices. However, Sony has a big presence there assured, and you can bet that Sony CONNECT (their online music store) is going to make an appearance on the PS3. Sony also said that you would be able to buy movies on the PS3, though I haven't seen any more details on that. With all the media ports on the back of the PS3, it could well become the new sync point for portable music players.

This all makes me wonder how much Steve Jobs has known about this. I am thinking back to Macworld in January, where Jobs brought the CEO of Sony onto the stage so they could show off their new HD camera. They laughed and said nice things about each other, and talked about how 2005 was going to be "the year of HD" (high-def). Apple can't make a killer game console, so it'll be interesting to see how this will affect their media business. As much as I'd love to see Apple and Sony partner or merge (and I think it could make sense), I don't see that happening.

And yes, I call it the Xbox2 instead of Xbox360. Xbox360 is just such a horribly bad name I can't stand to use it. It strikes me as the sort of thing Microsoft would think was important: getting a 3 in the name so that the PS3 wouldn't have a bigger number. It just winds up making the thing seem kind of boring and generic instead. It's almost as bad as...well, "Xbox."

Oh great! Right as I'm finished, Microsoft announces that Xbox2 will support Media Center and let you stream content to your TV screen through the Xbox2. Spur of the moment, I don't think that's quite going to do the trick...the PS3 IS (or can be) the media center PC. But I am going to hit Publish Post now before more announcements come out to render what I've written obsolete.

Update: Just saw on Gizmodo that BluRay/HD-DVD unification talks have failed. Interesting timing, of course. For an insight into what Microsoft was thinking for the Xbox2, check out this article on Kotaku. The summary is: "We believe that despite the evidence (TurboGrafix 16, Atari Jaguar, and Dreamcast), getting to market first wins."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Was Miguel de Icaza Always This Creepy? 

The Gnome language wars have started up again after a good 9 months of nothing happening. Havoc Pennington posted yesterday saying that Red Hat simply cannot ever ship Mono, due to pre-existing legal reasons that they can't talk about, and are having a hard time working around. That is the sort of thing that is hard to verify, but it's quite possibly true (Red Hat has made lots of deals with software and hardware vendors, and you can easily see some agreement being made or some code being shared that has tainted Red Hat somehow in this issue).

So Miguel de Icaza, helpful guy that he is, responds saying "Hey, too bad for them. They can just not ship the Mono stuff when they ship Gnome!" Wow, you'd love that wouldn't you? Red Hat is your biggest and really only competitor for [essentially] control of desktop Linux, and if they can't ship a good deal of the Gnome platform, you're more than happy to hear that, aren't you? You love the full-time programmers they've had hack on Gnome for years and years on GTK, Pango, Cairo, Mozilla, and so forth, and you're more than happy to just screw them over and be The One. Your concern for the community and your commitment to the spirit of freedom and sharing of open source has truly touched me.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The iPod is Not a Fad 

Since many companies are releasing their quarterly results about now, I happened to notice a few days ago that some analysts have been predicting an iPod "backlash," or "white earbud fatigue," because with it's insane market dominance, the iPod will stop being cool. I disagree with this theory for a number of reasons.

First of all, the iPod is not a pair of Ugg boots. It's a functional device, and how fashionable it is is only one consideration people have when deciding what to buy. That is probably why luxury brands for things like cars, watches, and hotels have much more staying power compared to things like clothes and hair styles. Given the portability of a small music player, something aesthetically pleasing is very desirable, but in a device people want to have with them at all times, the elegance and simplicity of its interface is part of the luxury. I think a large part of the gap between Apple's market share and that of other major players can be explained not so much by Apple's hipness, but by how well-designed their offerings are.

First of all, the scrollwheel is an excellent interface for such a device. The latest incarnation is very advanced, and works wonderfully. By being circular, you can easily scroll through a list without having to stop. The problem for competitors is that there's one company that owns all the patents on these touch-screen devices (Synaptics), and they have an exclusivity deal with Apple on a circular scrollwheel. Zen has equipped its players with a straight up and down region that accelerates like Apple's scrollwheel, and other players use directional buttons and other similar interfaces, but you don't even have to try them out to know that they just don't cut it in comparison. Eventually Synaptics's patents will expire, but until then, I think Apple will be able to write a check large enough to keep their exclusivity with Synaptics. So this is a pretty hard mountain for a competitor to climb.

On top of that, no one else seems to have their act together with respect to the software. Part of what makes the iPod so wonderful to use is the excellent integration with iTunes, which enforces a model of your iPod's library that is easy for users to understand: when you connect your iPod, it will be synchronized to match your iTunes library. Other devices require various other software packages to manage and synchronize your music library, and these other pieces of software are not as mature or well-designed as iTunes. Yes, there is some increase in choice in that certain pieces of software work with devices by different manufacturers, but not all of them. The major pieces of software (Sony Connect, Napster) seem to be more interested in selling you their subscription music than helping you rip, manage, or play your music on your computer, which would result in my not using it (but that's just me).

It seems inevitable that the software/hardware integration problem will get better on the non-Apple platform, but I'm not seeing any movement on that at all so far. The hardware manufacturers themselves probably don't have the resources to invest in creating amazingly great software themselves. It's hard to see Napster shifting their interfaces to be "music management with a music store" instead of "a music store with library management," since that is the only thing they make money on, but Sony might do it. Any day now, they might start getting their act together on the software. Soon.

But the scrollwheel issue is much harder to solve. And as time goes on, all those people who have been buying those third of a billion songs on iTunes Music Store seem less and less likely to walk away from their investment in those files, and buy them again somewhere else so that they can use a (possibly excellent) non-iPod device.

Monday, May 02, 2005

More Thoughts on Operating Systems 

One thing that struck me as I read the ArsTechnica article I previously mentioned was how backwards MacOS X's kernel has been. Until Tiger, it has essentially had a "big kernel lock," though some footnotes apply to that statement. Furthermore, until Tiger, they had not frozen the low-level kernel interfaces in MacOS X, making kernel extensions, file systems, and certain drivers a pain in the ass to develop. Tiger also improves the limited support for 64-bit processors as well.

"What a shame," I thought, "that they didn't choose Linux as their kernel." Linux got rid of their big kernel lock with 2.4, which came out in 2001. The most recent release of the Linux kernel (2.6, which came out in 2003) goes a step farther and is preemptive, a huge win for system responsiveness in interactive applications (read: desktops!). Linux has also had full support for 64-bit PowerPC chips since 2001, with full backwards compatibility with 32-bit applications. As for the stable kernel interfaces, two out of three ain't bad.

So you look at this situation and go, hm, Apple has been making multiprocessor 64-bit desktop machines for a couple of years now. It's like Apple is totally unable to ship an operating system that takes advantage of their current hardware at all, if you look back at how long it took them to ship an operating system that was actually PowerPC native. And, you know, had all the things Windows 95 had.

Gnome and Apple share a very important trait, and that is that they're willing to break with tradition that is stupid. Apple looked at unix and said, "Hey, we can make a great system using this, and fixing what is bad about it." So they ported all the unix utilities to use a standardized XML configuration file format. When I first heard about that with the first release of MacOS X, I thought, "Aha, this is a great idea. This means we only need one parser, knowledge of one syntax, the files are easily displayed through a user-friendly editing interface, and they can be machine-verified for correctness. Surely this will be moved over to Linux in short order." In a word, that has not happened. The Linux types hate it.

Similarly, with Tiger, Apple has fixed the mess that is /etc/rc.d with their faster, more elegant launchd solution. Aaaand, they hate it.

Now, look at Gnome. They've based their configuration file format on GConf, which in practice is always mapped to XML files. Similarly, look at Seth Nickell's proposal for an init replacement that he called SystemServices. It's remarkably similar to launchd, but it never got written.

I would say that if anything, Gnome hasn't been thinking big enough. They've made changes against the kicking and screaming of the unix core, and in so doing dragged them into the, well, a few years past where they were. There isn't anyone performing this sort of modernization on other parts of Linux, however. In my fantasies, a company comes along and decides to build a desktop/workstation system, using Linux as its foundation. Only instead of designing backwards from what software is out there, they design the system and then adapt the software to do what it needs to do, breaking with existing projects if necessary (be that forking or replacing them entirely). Such an entity providing a more stable, centralized location for a software developer to aim at would probably be a very good influence in the Linux market. In my fantasies, they would write kernel driver modules that export a stable, binary-only interface for drivers and are updated to talk to the kernel on the other side whenever the kernel developers try to break those interfaces (Linux has held the line on binary-only drivers long enough; it's clear that the hardware makers would rather just not bother enabling their hardware to work in Linux than providing documentation or source code).

I could keep on elaborating about how great it would be if they would design some vaguely stylish looking x86 hardware to tightly integrate with, and so forth, but the reality is that it could never happen. Although building such a system is probably not as daunting as it might at first seem (Linux is closer than it would seem from outward appearances), no company would want to surrender so much control to a large lineup of widely varied personalities and interests.

And that is probably why Apple decided against choosing Linux.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Thoughts on Operating Systems 

If there's been a theme so far in MacOS X development, I would say it is that every new release contains two types of features: those they hype, and those they don't. As awesome as I think Spotlight looks, I have been looking forward to Tiger more for the second sort of feature. Of course, I didn't have any proof that Tiger would contain any of this sort of feature, but make sure you don't miss this article on ArsTechnica that details exactly what those under-the-hood features are. I suggest you skip his pages and pages of ranting about metadata, but the rest of the article is fascinating, not only because it explains what is new in Tiger, but also because it describes what was wrong in previous releases of MacOS X (stuff you wouldn't believe). On page 14, you learn that there is a potentially tremendous speed increase in Tiger that is turned off by default, apparently because it's not quite ready for prime-time.

I also wanted to point out this blog post by Edd Dumbill, a Gnome developer. He touches on something I've talked about before, namely the problem Gnome has created by not making a decision on what to do about high level languages. As Charles Simonyi (Microsoft programmer extraordinaire) said, "It is often more important to make timely decisions than it is to make correct ones."

This year's handwringing in the Gnome camp appears to be related to whether or not Gnome can develop the "next-generation" of user interface with its current development methodology. I think a lot of the thinking here is pretty misguided. There seems to be this fantasy among many of the hackers that 3.0 will be where Gnome finally becomes the user interface designer's utopia, and radically departs from most of the interfaces that computer users are used to across platforms. I think that that won't happen, and it really probably shouldn't happen. First of all, Gnome developers might or might not remember that they were at this point before, when they were trying to make 2.0 happen. It festered, undone, for many years, before some sanity was brought to the project and much smaller, more reasonable changes were%2

That's all I'm going to post now, because although this represents only about a third of what I'd actually written, Blogger ate the rest of it (I didn't even do anything that would have required me to submit the page, or so I thought, so I hadn't yet copied the text to save it from the Blogger post-eater). And you ask why I don't blog as much anymore.

OK, fine, I'll rewrite the gist of what I wrote. I am so unbelievably angry, though.

made so that 2.0 was finally completed. The final version of Gnome 2.0 didn't look all that fundamentally different from 1.0, but it has certainly enabled a long and stable stream of releases that have built the platform up to where in many respects, it is the equal of other systems.

The changes suggested by the Gnome 3.0 wiki don't seem to be driven by any actual user needs, but more by what might be called "architecture astronauts" if we were talking about APIs instead of user interfaces. The basic idea is correct, sure: user-centric objects are much more important these days. But we are getting to the advanced stages of a shift in focus that has happened before. Just as interface-centric concerns eclipsed kernel features in importance, the actual desktop shell is being pushed down the operating system stack as mostly finished. In its place, domain specific applications are becoming the new focus of user attention.

Applications like iTunes and Picasa are practically file-specific operating system features. The idea of using a file manager to work with music or photographs is rendered ridiculous by these applications. I interact with thousands of times more music or picture files through these applications than I do through the file manager. Similarly, integrated and comprehensive desktop search capabilities are about to render the use of the file manager as outdated as managing your browser bookmarks. (I'm not saying the file manager will disappear or anything like that; I still make bookmarks for certain things in my browser. I just think it's going to become much more exceptional for a user to have to jump into it).

The Gnome hackers are onboard with this much, but they seem to want these functionalities to be a part of Gnome, with Gnome as a sort of mega-application that intelligently displays all your data in its own specific way, much like you would use iTunes. I think this is misguided, because these applications are complex and Gnome doesn't have the resources to develop them to the level they need to be at. Third-party developers certainly aren't going to want to step out of the way and let their software become anonymously integrated with Gnome, and with all of the internal data being free for the desktop shell (or competitors) to use. Gnome hackers might respond that they're trying to build a free and open desktop, but they should also remember that most of the interesting software currently available for Gnome, even if free, is created by external projects that might have very different goals (for example, Firefox, OpenOffice, Gimp, and so forth all desire some amount of portability).

I realize I am putting words in their mouths, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how else their vision should be interpretted. I would say instead that the desktop shell is basically done, with all the major operating systems having converged on basically the same design. Gnome should focus on maintaining excellence and enabling even better applications to run on their platform (especially, for example, recent work on the graphics capabilities of the Linux desktop). But I think they should also realize that any attempts to move the Linux desktop forward through what is basically the desktop shell are probably doomed to failure. The next step forward is going to have to come from the development of those data-centric and task-centric applications. Until Gnome has some polished alternative to iTunes and Picasa, I really can't use it. And the reality is, most of those applications can be developed perfectly well on Gnome as it currently stands. Perhaps Gnome should even consider making itself smaller and tighter, the mere meeting point for the applications that are, when taken together, truly going to provide the next generation of user interface.

Update: Fortunately, a lot of the bigwigs in Gnome seem to...well, I won't make the potentially libelous claim that they agree with me, but they do seem to have the same thoughts. For instance, here's Havoc Pennington.

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