Dinosaur hunting

Today I slipped over to Laclede Computer Trading Company for the first time in many years. I was in search of an ISA parallel card. They’re not easy to find these days, mostly because they aren’t particularly useful to most people these days, but I figured if anyone would have one, it would be them.

No dice. But man, what memories.

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How to clean up your computer before you sell it

I went to a huge garage sale this morning. I walked home with a 7-year-old Dell 15" LCD monitor. What I paid for it wouldn’t buy lunch for my wife and me. When I got it home and saw how well it worked, I felt guilty.

So if you’re thinking of selling some computer equipment, take my tips (as someone who attends literally thousands of garage sales every year) for getting decent money for it.The main reason I got this monitor for so little is because it looked like it sat in a dusty garage or attic for several years. It was filthy. I’ve seen identical monitors sell for 50 bucks as recently as June. Identical except for the dirt, that is.

I cleaned the monitor up using nothing more than an old dish towel and some all-surface biodegradable cleaner I buy at Costco. But dish detergent would work in a pinch. Dampen the towel, wring it out, add a bit of cleaner, and clean all the surfaces except for the screen. You’ll get more money if it looks like the unit was taken care of. You want it to look like you just bought its replacement yesterday.

You’ll also get more if you can demonstrate it works. Run an extension cable or two if necessary, and hook the stuff up so shoppers can see it in action. Many shoppers assume bargain-priced computer equipment at garage sales doesn’t work. In my experience, about half of it does. So I pay accordingly.

Finally, price realistically. These are the same people who get up at 4am the day after Thanksgiving to wait in line until Office Depot opens. I know because I do that too, and I see the same people I see every Saturday. So you’re competing with Black Friday’s prices, with used equipment.

That said, a working computer that runs Windows XP decently (and has a legal copy of XP on it) should fetch $75-$100, depending on its speed. A 1 GHz PC will run closer to $75, while a 2 GHz PC will fetch $100. And at that price, it should sell fairly quickly.

If a computer is decent but doesn’t work, it won’t sell for much. I’ve paid $10 for computers that need hard drives before, and I’ve passed on $10 computers that need hard drives. Sometimes I regret not buying that Pentium 4 that worked except for the hard drive, but my back hurt that day and I didn’t feel like lugging it home.

CRT monitors are hard to give away these days, but if you can demonstrate it works and it looks presentable, a 17-inch monitor is worth $10-$20. Your best bet for getting rid of one of those, though, is to bundle it with a working computer that runs Windows XP.

A working 15-inch LCD monitor should sell for $50 without any trouble.

Keyboards and mice are giveaways. I literally wish I had a dollar for every time someone’s tried to give me a keyboard. Anyone who wants one already has too many. The lone exception to this rule is an optical mouse. But a new, mid-range Microsoft optical mouse sells for $20-$25 on sale, so don’t expect to get more than $5-$10 for one. I paid $2 for one this year, and it didn’t work. I was willing to take a chance at that price, but no higher.

How eBay is ruining itself

A thread on one of the train forums I frequent mentioned today that the number of listings for Marx trains on eBay is down about 50% over what it was a year or so ago. Not only that, the listings are by and large the common, less interesting stuff.

Meanwhile, a debate rages on another forum I read sometimes, frequented by eBay sellers. On one side are the eBay apologists, saying they’ll just change as eBay changes. On the other side, people struggling to make a profit in the ever-changing environment are finding other venues to sell their wares and finding themselves a lot happier.The problem is that eBay is trying to create a sterile, retail experience. The big shareholders and the executives seem to think that’s what the consumer wants.

Another seller’s theory is that the people who sell brand new merchandise in huge quantities are less troublesome, causing fewer headaches for eBay and for the customers.

The eBay business books I’ve read talk a lot about people who drop-ship pool tables and other merchandise in large quantities, never touching any of it, and supposedly becoming millionaires by doing it.

But the people who put eBay on the map are the people like the ones I see every Saturday morning. They study classified ads the way a devout monk would study Scripture, looking for clues and carefully plotting out their routes. They get up before dawn and drive to their carefully chosen site. Their prey: The estate sale. They line up in the driveway hours before the sale opens, like bargain hunters the day after Thanksgiving. When the sale finally opens, shoppers come in, 10, 20, or 50 at a time, depending on the size of the house, while those who arrived later wait their turn. Any time someone leaves, those in the driveway gawk, trying to see what he or she purchased.

It doesn’t matter what item you can name, I know someone who goes out every Saturday looking for it. Some of these people are collectors, but some of them hawk their finds on eBay. They buy on Saturday and Sunday, then they spend hours the following week figuring out what exactly they have, carefully photographing and describing each item, then listing it, hoping to attract bidders.

The typical eBay addict doesn’t go there to buy a pool table, or the kind of things they sell at a suburban mall. Certainly there are people who buy those sorts of things on eBay. But those tend to be occasional shoppers. The biggest eBay addicts are the fanatics–the serious collectors who spend hours every day scouring new eBay listings, looking for items they don’t have in their collections.

And guess what? These collectors don’t buy from drop-shippers who duplicate the retail experience. The drop-shippers can’t get those kinds of collectibles. It’s the people who get up at 5 a.m. each Saturday to be first in line to prowl around in someone’s attic or basement who get that stuff.

The problem is that the people who do get that stuff have a difficult time becoming (and remaining) Powersellers. A Powerseller has to sell 100 items or $1,000 worth of inventory per month. If I wanted to sell vintage trains on eBay, there’s no way I could locate 1,200 items each year. Not in St. Louis. The $1,000 mark wouldn’t be much easier to hit.

So eBay is driving away that kind of seller. And as a result, eBay is going to lose that type of buyer as well.

I know for a fact there are plenty of collectors in Europe and elsewhere who are eager to take advantage of the low value of the dollar and buy a bunch of collectible American trains at bargain prices due to the exchange rate. Unfortunately the timing is horrible. The new eBay policies have driven away a lot of the people who sell the best items. So the foreigners with money to spend end up spending a lot less than they would like. Sure, they’ll buy the $10 items that are listed, but they’d really rather buy the $100 and $1,000 items that were listed last year but are conspicuously absent today.

Ten years ago, eBay was flying high. They weren’t the first online auction, but they were the most successful, precisely because they allowed ordinary people to sell ordinary (and extraordinary) things. I bought a number of things from online auctions in the mid 1990s, including the Lexmark 4039 laser printer I still use every day. I don’t remember now the name of the auction house where I bought it. I do know it went out of business shortly after eBay became widely known.

Lots of other companies wanted in on the action. Amazon, Yahoo, and others launched auction sites that looked and acted a lot like eBay. But they never went anywhere. The best sellers put their best stuff on eBay. The wannabes tended to just have second-rate stuff sold by second-rate sellers. Case point: I once tried to buy a lot of vintage train magazines from an Amazon auction. I won, paid my money, and waited. And waited. A week later I e-mailed the seller. No response. Finally after another week he responded, saying he’d been having computer trouble and asking if I still wanted the magazines. Well, since he offered me the refund, I took it. I spent the money on eBay instead.

Yahoo auctions are gone, closed about a year ago. If Amazon’s auctions are still open, they’re sure doing a good job of hiding them.

If another company wants to get a piece of eBay’s business, the time is right. There are lots of refugee eBay sellers looking for someplace a little cheaper, with a little more stable set of rules where they can sell. And if a large enough group of them take up shop somewhere, there are plenty of buyers more than willing to follow them there.

It may not happen this year. But I do think it’s only a matter of time.

The Megan Meier Myspace suicide, 10 days later

It’s been about 10 days since the story first broke about 13-year-old Megan Meier being harassed online by a 48-year-old neighbor posing online as a 16-year-old boy and eventually being driven to suicide. The blogosphere has gone nuts, the story has national and even international attention, and while none of this will bring Megan Meier back, at least there’s been some progress.On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named the 48-year-old impersonator. From what the story said, the family gets very little peace, and the neighbors don’t care much for them. Their life wasn’t good even before the story broke, and it hasn’t gotten any better in the past week.

Comments on various blogs indicate the impersonator’s phones have been disconnected. As widespread as that information had become, their phones probably never stopped ringing. This harassment is illegal, but I still have a hard time feeling sorry for them.

The original police report showed up on The Smoking Gun. Reading it made me even madder. The part that bothered me the most:

Despite the recency of the suicide and several neighbors recommending she not contact the Meier family (especially on Thanksgiving), Meier stated she and her husband attempted to contact the Meier family three times, “banging on the door” even though Mr. Meier had already told them to leave. [She] wished the current tension be documented in case any of her property is damaged. Further, [she] insisted on contacting the family to “inform them of what she knows.” [She] stated she “just needed” to tell them to relieve herself of the “responsibility” and apparent guilt.

Relieve herself of responsibility and apparent guilt? Document the tension in case of property damage?

How about a good old-fashioned apology?

At least one company that advertised with the impersonator’s coupon magazine, a carpet cleaning business, stated in public that they will be ending that relationship. They had already committed to being in the next issue, so they may appear in it, but that will be the last.

Two businesses expressed indifference, according to one commenter, but all it takes is a few businesses pulling their ads to make it difficult to pay the bills.

A blog surfaced on Sunday, titled Megan Had it Coming. It claims to be written by someone who knew Megan.

I read the single post there, and I have serious doubts that the author is 14 years old. The spelling and grammar are much better than the typical 14-year-old, and the paragraphs tend to be more complex than I would expect from a 14-year-old. The paragraphs for the most part follow the structure one is taught to use in college.

That said, some of the elements of the writing are too bad for a gifted 14-year-old. I could write that well (or better) at that age and I know several other people who could too. But the logic is extremely flawed. I believe any English teacher who saw a student capable of writing like that at age 14 would hammer on the child’s logic. English teachers aren’t satisfied with that quality of work from someone who exhibits this much ability at 14.

For these reasons, I believe the author is older, and probably had at least the introductory composition course in college. She (I believe the author is probably female) may not have done all that well in the class, or she may have been intentionally making mistakes in an attempt to appear to be a younger and less sophisticated author. When I was a journalism major at Mizzou, I was a go-to guy for people who were having trouble in their Introductory Composition class, so I read a lot of those papers. This piece really reminded me of those papers.

Let me also say that the most difficult thing for an author to do is to appear to be something that he or she is not. So if a piece of writing doesn’t look or sound like that of a 14-year-old girl, then it probably isn’t.

I agree with the author that Megan Meier wasn’t perfect. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume everything she said about Megan is true. The Megan she portrayed reminds me of pretty much every girl aged 12-14 I remember growing up with. Some girls stay that way a lot longer. I definitely remember elements of that kind of behavior in two ex-girlfriends, both of whom were in their early 20s when we dated. A few girls I knew got over it early, and I remember having trouble knowing how to react to them, because they were so different.

If Megan Meier deserved to die because she was self-conscious, oversensitive, shallow, fickle, difficult to be around, and prone to overreact, then that means virtually every teenager in the world deserves to die. Those flaws are the very essence of that phase of life. It’s all a phase, and most people grow out of it. It’s not a cause for deserving death. It also doesn’t mean that someone who exhibits those characteristics is automatically going to commit suicide.

It’s a terrible logical fallacy.

I also disagree with the assertion that Megan deserved this fate because a 48-year-old vs. a 14-year-old isn’t a fair fight, no matter how you cut it. I would have far more sympathy for the impersonator if the impersonator had been another teenager, acting alone.

The author tends to talk down, as if she’s already outgrown this phase, and even if a 14-year old was already through all this, I don’t think she would have enough perspective to comment about it this way. I can’t really put my finger on specific phrases, but the whole piece gives me a sense of looking back at 14, rather than being in the thick of 14.

I have no way of knowing who the author of this one-off blog is. Given writing samples, I can usually figure out if a piece in question was written by the same person, but I have no writing samples to compare. The author could be the original impersonator who is now vying for the title of most hated woman on the Internet. It fits her pattern of behavior. It could also be one of the many contrarian random trolls who are popping up on any blog that mentions Megan Meier and her impersonator by name.

My friend who lives in the area observed that the blogger referred to a local sports complex as “Tri Sports.” The proper name of that complex is the Renaud Spirit Center, and the address is 2650 Tri Sports Circle. Tri Sports Circle is one street over from the street where the Meiers and the impersonators live.

So the author of this piece is almost certainly local. Given that the impersonator has few or no friends left in the neighborhood, and given how the author of this piece went out of her way to defend the impersonator, I believe the author of this one-off blog probably is none other than the same mind that brought us Josh Evans, the fake-16-year-old boyfriend.

Are Google\’s corporate perks excessive?

Google’s corporate perks are the subject of a Fortune magazine article. I’m going to take what I suspect is a contrarian view on this. I think Google’s excessive spending on its employee perks is a good thing.

Why? Because I’ve seen what happens with the opposite.I know of one company whose ultimate goal is to use temporary contractors as much as possible. The reason is simple: Overhead. Find a company that gives its contractors as little as possible to keep rates low, use those people, and then you don’t have to mess around with giving benefits like vacation and sick time and vacation days aside from Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Personally, I think the guy’s an idiot, and you can quote me on that. I once worked at a struggling company that used a ton of contractors. None of us had any of that messy and expensive sick time. So when a contractor got sick, rather than give up a week’s pay, he or she just sucked down Dayquil like it was water and showed up for work. The result? An epidemic. I’ve never seen so many sick people in September in my life. And guess what? The rest of cold/flu season wasn’t any better.

That particular company wasn’t profitable when I worked there, and it isn’t profitable today. I wonder if it’s because nothing gets done from September to February because everyone’s sick?

I worked someplace else that was paying me about $15,000 less than what the job search engines said I should be making. I was having a hard time paying my bills some months. Did it make it hard for me to concentrate on things at work? Absolutely. I knew from year to year I was only going to get a cost-of-living raise whether I did well or poorly, so I didn’t really try all that hard to excel.

Knowing what I know about that particular employer’s bottom line and customer satisfaction, I suspect they could really have used the results of a couple of my projects from the last year and a half or so.

So when I see that Google gives its employees free food and does their laundry for free and gives them $500 worth of takeout food when they have a baby–among other things–I don’t exactly think that’s a bad idea.When an employee doesn’t have to solve those kinds of personal problems, that’s that much more energy the employee has to devote to the company. And, hopefully, the company’s needs are more interesting to the employee than laundry.

Now I’m not sure that this is universal. A company like Google is going to have a higher rate of return on this kind of investment than, say, Radio Shack.

Let’s take a look at another company. Everybody knows eBay, and the company is always profitable because it doesn’t have to do a lot of work, and it makes money whether the stuff sells or not. It’s a nice situation to be in: Millions of people are working extremely hard to make sure eBay is profitable, simply in hopes of making lots of money themselves (and while some do, many don’t).

Yet eBay’s stock price is in the toilet. The problem is that eBay isn’t growing anymore. They have a monopoly on the online auction business, but they’re pretty much expanded as much as they can, and the company hasn’t had a second great idea. They’ve had several lousy ideas in the past year, and they’re likely to have a bunch more and lose lots of money in the process of chasing the next great idea.

If Google wants to not be the next eBay, it needs to keep cranking out a steady stream of profitable ideas. Its market share in search keeps growing. Meanwhile, it’s turned advertising into a big cash cow. Maybe YouTube is Google’s next big cash cow. Maybe not, and maybe Google Base is the next one. Or maybe it’s something that hasn’t been publicly unveiled yet.

But the only reason Google got to where it is was because it had lots of brilliant people working for it, and they were free to try lots of wacky ideas. Those wacky ideas that succeeded have turned it into a juggernaut. So I think taking care of the basic needs of those fertile minds is a great idea. That means those minds have that much more energy to concentrate on coming up with great ideas. And if those minds are happy, they’re more likely to come up with great ideas for Google than profitable side projects for themselves.

The formula seems to be working. Google can pretty much hire anyone it wants at this point. The few exceptions I can think of, such as Bill Gates, probably don’t have much to offer Google anyway.

Meanwhile, people are leaving Microsoft like crazy. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing for Microsoft remains to be seen, but Google is able to retain the people it wants to retain, while Microsoft appears to be having trouble doing that.

I think the perks have a lot to do with it.

Of course, the perks won’t do much good if Google doesn’t hire the right people–I can think of some people I know and have known whose extra brainpower isn’t worth having–but Google finds itself in the position of being able to pick and choose its hires.

If Google tanks in five years, people will look back at today as a time when Google blew it by wasting revenue on excesses, but I don’t think Google will tank in five years. I think it’s more likely that in five years, everything that comes to mind when people think of the Internet will be something that Google owns.

It’ll be interesting to see.

Setting up the tree and the train

Although some of the people in our neighborhood had their Christmas stuff up well in advance of Thanksgiving, my wife and I did the traditional thing, setting the tree up the day after Thanksgiving. We use a pre-lit artificial tree. Growing up, I remember stringing lights on the tree and taking them back down was always the most tedious part of the job, so I decided that if someone didn’t invent it before me, I’d invent the pre-lit Christmas tree.

Someone else did, of course. The next time I get a great idea I need to move on it more quickly.

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Gigabit prices hit the mainstream

So, if you haven’t totally wireless-ized your computer setup yet, I’ve got a great excuse for you not to do it. Or at least to leave some wires hanging around for special occasions.

Cheap gigabit switches and NICs, that’s what.Right now you can buy gigabit NICs for $10 after all the rebates, and a 5-port switch is about $20. If they’re not on sale this week, wait until next week or the week after. At the very least, there will be sales around Halloween, Thanksgiving, and throughout December.

The nice thing about gig is that the speed of networked drives approaches that of local drives. Thanks to overhead and all that, it might not quite be native speed, but it will be very close. Copying files and making backups becomes much faster and easier. In a multi-computer house, instead of fighting over which computer gets the new half-terrabyte drive, any computer with a wired connection can share it.

So if I were building a network from scratch for someone, I’d go with a combination route. Start off with an 802.11g wireless router for the remote reaches of the house (possibly even one of the 108-megabit "Super-G" routers for faster local data transfers), then put a gigabit switch in the office or wherever multiple computers reside so they could share data at blinding speed. I wouldn’t bother wiring the entire house, but if there are two adjacent rooms each with computers, I might wire both of them so they could enjoy a high-speed connection.

How to get that dusty old train running again

How to get that dusty old train running again

It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving. The time of year when nostalgia runs high and ancient toy trains come out of the basement or the attic and get set up again until sometime after the new year.

Well, hopefully they make it that long. Here are some tips for getting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and similar electric trains running again.

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Beware the “flat screen” scam

I was just pricing out some parts for the pending Compaq Presario upgrade when I remembered the latest scam–well, it’s not technically a scam, but it’s definitely deceptive advertising. Many stores offer a bundle with a low-end PC and a 17-inch “flat screen” for an unbelievable deal, like $499. Chances are, if you read this site, some relative of yours is going to be asking about that, if they haven’t started asking already. And I’m pretty sure you know that right now $399 is a pretty good deal for a 17-inch LCD flat panel alone.
Needless to say, that 17-inch “flat screen” isn’t an LCD. It’s a CRT. Sometimes they even use camera tricks in the picture to try to make the CRT look like an LCD.

In all truthfulness, that 17-inch monitor being advertised as a bargain flat screen probably does have a flatter screen than whatever your relative is using right now. And CRTs continue to improve steadily. But it’s still a CRT, and it’s probably not what your relative is looking for.

Tell your relatives to read the fine print and look for an LCD. And tell them to keep in mind nobody’s giving away LCDs right now, because LCDs are one of the very few things in the computer field that have held steady demand for the past couple of years. At least one consumer electronics chain used a 14-inch Mag Innovision LCD as a Black Friday special, pricing it at $99 after rebates the day after Thanksgiving. I expect that deal will reappear once or twice in the coming year, but a 14-inch LCD gives the same screen real estate as a 15-inch CRT. It’d be great for a second computer–I’ll eventually buy one to keep in my study, where a small and quiet computer is ideal–but it’s probably not what LCD bargain hunters are looking for either.

Oh, and speaking of the Presario, if you’re looking for a replacement power supply for it on the cheap either for a motherboard upgrade or because one has failed, the product you want is the Foxconn Allied ATX200SFX, priced at $19 at Newegg.com. It’ll also fit an eMachine and the small-form Gateway and HP PCs. The trick to recognizing an SFX power supply is to look at how it’s bolted into the chasis. If it’s held in by three screws, with two on one side and a third on the other side towards the middle, it’s probably an SFX form factor. A lot of smaller ATX power supplies use four screws. So ask your vendor lots of questions, and buy as much wattage as you can get in whatever size you’re stuck with.

R. Collins celebrates his birthday

R. Collins Farquhar IV, aristocrat and scientist.
To my longtime readers and adoring fans. May you someday become enlightened.

Greeting:

I have just returned from my four-week tour of Europe in celebration of my 29th birthday. Aristocracy, unfortunately, is in decline in Europe just as it is in the United States, with the old money dying out and the Nouveau Riche taking over, but as there are more ruins of the old aristocracy in Europe than in the States, it still makes a worthwhile visit. I predict that within a generation, the old aristocracy will, sadly, be little more than a memory. I have made many predictions in the past and all of them have come true. You may read them by visiting Aristocraticguys.com and signing up for the premium-level subscription. I accept payment in U.S. currency, Pounds Sterling, and gold.

Speaking of the Nouveau Riche, I do wish I had spent my send-off with Raunche rather than with my so-called relatives. Little of my fine aristocratic blood seems to have seeped into them, sadly. I visited them on 27 November (November 27) for what they called “dinner.” They said it was something about Thanksgiving. Well, yes, for my enlightened readers, every day is reason to give thanks for the bountiful irrefragable enlightenment which follows my every footstep. I was very glad they were beginning to recognize this, and I told my manservant as much as he pulled my Rolls into my mother’s quaint little driveway.

After a feeble attempt at badinage, I noticed a smirk on my brother’s face. I always know I am in for something fetid and callow when I see that look. He suggested we sit down to dinner. I had my manservant sit at the table while I sojourned outside for a few puffs of my pipe. (My unenlightened family has not yet discovered the healing properties of tobacco smoke.) I always have my manservant eat my meals before I do, as it reveals two things. First and foremost, if my manservant lives, then I know the meal is not toxic. Second, I can interrogate him as to whether the meal was fit for aristocratic consumption.

I took a sip of my brandy (decaffienated, of course), thinking I might need it to face what awaited me inside. I needed not proceed with the interrogation upon my return. As my brother was stuffing his face with his third helping of a vile concoction called turkey and noodles, I scanned the table. Most of the usual traditional foods consumed by the rabble on that particular day were present: turkey, some vile concoction made with old bread that is commonly called “dressing” (I can only assume the French came up with that idea), mashed-up cranberries, some concoction that appeared to be made with apples and cream, mutilated potatoes and yams, and large quantities of white bread. No exotic animals. Nothing requiring the skills of a chef. Not even any haggis. Haggis is what commoners once ate in Scotland, but at least it is Scottish. Someone in this family needs to remember our roots. If they must be commoners, the very least they could do is be Scottish commoners.

Then, on the corner of the table, I spotted something worthy of an aristocrat’s refined palette: a jar of caviar.

But the caviar was not blended with red onions, scallions, sour cream, cream cheese and spices and wrapped in flaky puff pastry fit for an aristocrat, but it sat in an unopened jar, in the middle of a plate, garnished with small commercially-produced cakes resembling hockey pucks in plain white wrappers. My manservant told me they were a product manufactured by Hostess, commonly known as “Ding Dongs.”

My brother is a big enough ding-dong that I can only presume they are named after him. I need not contribute to his ego by indulging in them. Besides, my aristocratic gastrointestinal tract probably cannot handle such things.

I instructed my manservant to save one for Jacques Pierre Cousteau Bouillabaise Nouveau Riche Croissant le Raunche de la Stenche.

“Have some caviar and Ding Dongs,” my brother offered, before he resumed shoveling noodles into his face. I thought about offering him a second fork. I can only assume that this insult to my aristocracy was his idea, no doubt a result of a conversation with the Archduke of Stenche. I shall have to inquire at an appropriate time.

I decided it was time to depart. I instructed my manservant to warm up the Rolls. I waited a minute for some acknowledgment of me having graced their table with my presence. Finding none, I departed, unappreciated. No matter, as there were vintage antique radios to be refurbished and Europe was ever waiting. As the 31st great-grandson of William the Conqueror, I sought to return to Europe to plan my next conquest.

I can only assume they resumed stuffing their faces with noodles.

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