Getting Close…

I’m done with all of my coursework.

It’s been a long time since I posted and that’s mainly because I’ve been focused on taking care of all the other things that I neglected while I was working on school.

One of the things I have been focusing is what to do next.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m looking at what kind of graduate program I might like to pursue. So far, I’ve only discussed the CVN program at Columbia University. There are others.

One I’ve been looking into is the MBA program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The entire program can be taken online and is AACSB accredited. I’m intrigued.

More to come…

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Circuit City : Good Riddance…

I had a job at Circuit City about 15 years ago.

When I started there, I had just moved to Gainesville, FL.  My plan was to try and get into the University of Florida (I did) and to do that, I needed to make some money.  I signed up for a temporary holiday position and started working.

It was a fun job.  I sold computers and TVs and made a better than average wage for the time.  The job had flexible hours and I liked the people I worked with.  After the holiday season, they asked me to stay on and I took a part-time job there.

But somewhere along the line, things changed.

For one thing, management started scheduling me for 35 hours per week while still classifying me as part-time.  According to their own rules, I was supposed to be classified as full-time if I was regularly scheduled for more than 30 hours a week.  Being part-time meant I didn’t get any benefits.

Then they started cutting our commissions.  As a salesperson, we were paid a gross commission on the total dollar amount we sold as well as specific dollar amount (SPFs) on certain items.  The gross commission went from 1% to 0.5% and the SPFs were cut as well.

Then they started making it possible for customers to purchase items without involving a salesperson.  So we lost a bunch of sales.

The last straw came when they forced everyone to agree to a binding arbitration agreement for essentially everything that they might get sued for.  Think things like endangering worker health, racial discrimination,  or sexual harassment.

That’s when I left.

That’s why this latest bit of news didn’t surprise me.  It’s a sad tale but reflects a pattern of management behavior that made a sequence of decisions leading to their probable demise.  They treated their workforce as a cost rather than an asset and did everything they could to drive the good employees away and hire cheap ones.

It also reminded me that I had to leave school because my work was conflicting with my coursework.  I earned bad grades because I let Circuit City push me around.  They were interested in maximizing my availability and a degree program got in the way of that.  They simply didn’t care.  I was complicit in this because I stayed longer than I should have and I let my grades suffer to keep management happy.

I never made that mistake again.

When I started at Harvard Extension, my previous employer initially was supportive.  When it became clear that I needed more flexibility to complete my studies than they were used to giving, they tried to push me to give up my coursework.

This time I made the right choice and found another job.  As it happens, that employer had a tuition reimbursement program that gave me $4000 per year to apply to a degree program.  Not a lot, but every little bit helps.  They subsequently doubled that to $8000.

I’m lucky to be employed by a company that values their employees.  They have made an investment in me and my education and I’m grateful for that.  If you’ve ever been in my situation, you know how it feels for an employer to see you as a valued asset rather than a problem to be dealt with.  Companies that pay their employees well and treat them with respect tend to be more profitable as well.

A while back Circuit City made headlines when it laid off its most senior employees but offered to hire them back at reduced compensation level.  In essence, they were trying to get someone who had become good enough at their job to warrant a series of pay increases for a greatly reduced price.  Most of them (rightfully) declined.  Circuit City’s profits plunged in subsequent quarters as the less experienced and less productive employees couldn’t make up the shortfall in sales volume.

I know that a lot of people who read this blog are working professionals.  Quite a few are juggling work and family along with their studies.  It might seem obvious but if you are serious about doing well in school, you need to make sure your employer will value you and support your quest to earn a degree.

I’ve had the experience of working for one who didn’t and the one thing I learned is that it isn’t worth the hassle.  Changing jobs is never easy but it can be worthwhile if the cost of not doing so is a poor showing in your degree program.

UPDATE: Looks like it’s the beginning of the end.  Just don’t believe the line about “economic conditions” being the reason for this.  The nails were put into the coffin by management making a host of bad decisions about marketing and strategy, especially when it comes to their most valuable asset: their employees.

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Formal Systems and Computation is kicking my ass…

Long time, no post.  That’s because I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Problem Sets.

Computer Science programs at traditional universities tend to be pretty rich in theory classes.  CS is very much like a math degree and many CS departments are linked to the math departments which can surprise some people.  That’s a big difference from your typical IT degree offered at a garden-variety non-traditional school.  When I was looking for programs that would allow me to complete my degree on-line, the focus for most of those schools was on learning some programming language or development tool or framework.  The theory of computation isn’t nearly as concrete a skill-set as C# programming.

Of course, this is a good thing from my perspective.  I was specifically looking for a program that was heavy on theory but allowed for some mix-in of practical skills that would be useful to someone who needed a specific skill.  I’m happy to say that Harvard Extension provides this environment.

That’s why I signed up for CSCI E-207, Formal Systems and Computation.  It’s actually a taped version of CS-121, a course taught at Harvard College.  Harvard Extension typically offers about 20 to 30 of these classes every year, which give non-traditional students to opportunity to learn from regular Harvard faculty.

if you ever had any questions about the differences between the material at HES and the College, take a close look at these two problem sets.

CSCI E-207 Problem Set 3

CS-121 Problem Set 3

Petty similar, eh?  The one major difference is that the points awarded are different.  I’m not sure what the rationale for this is.  It’s possible that the College students are being graded on some different scale than the Extension students.  What’s important to realize is that the material we are expected to absorb and the work we’re expected to do is pretty close to what they expect of the Harvard kids.  If you ever entertained the thought that HES isn’t really Harvard, then you might change your opinion if you had to actually take one of these classes.

I’m excited and a little anxious about performing well in this class.  This course is about as close to being about pure computation as you can get.  Understanding the fundamental principles they are covering is an important part of any real computer science degree.  It’s right up there with understanding data structures and algorithms.

I’m also taking CSCI E-168 this semester, Ruby on Rails.  It’s pretty much a boot-camp style course on Ruby and Web Development using Rails.  One suggestion: if you are planning on taking a heavy course like E-207, mix it with another class that’s not as intense a time demand or take it alone.

You have been warned.

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I Bought a 30-inch Monitor (and it’s GLORIOUS!)

I can’t under-emphasize how much of a difference this makes for me.

I do most of my work on a 15-inch Macbook Pro laptop and when I started to work with some of the more complicated programming assignments for class, I noticed that I was using the “spaces” feature of Leopard to switch between programming and debugging tools.  I also had a window open for a browser in case I needed to look up some reference information.

Now I can do all of those on the same screen.

It’s hard to emphasize how much of a difference it makes in the way you interact with your computer.

In my case, I’m expecting to do a lot of programming this semester.  Couple that with the distance ed courses I’m taking in Ruby/Rails and Formal Methods and I’m going to be spending a lot of time in front of the machine.  It made sense to optimize the experience as much as possible.

Ultimately, it was my birthday that provided the final justification for the purchase.

Go out and take a look at a few and then start saving.  Amazon has a number of them at various price points.

Apple 30-inch Cinema Display

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Is Distance Education a Problem at Harvard?

Ian over at Harvard Extended has posted an editorial criticizing the Harvard Extension School push into distance education.  Specifically, he questions whether a degree program composed primarily of classes taken remotely via the Internet can ever really compare to the learning experience offered by in-person attendance on the campus, particularly the Harvard campus.  He notes that out of about 600 classes, more than 100 online classes are offered at HES, with a clear uptick in the number year-over-year.

There is some evidence that the Extension School shares at least some of his concerns.  Last year, the ALB program was modified to include a requirement for 4 (out of a minimum of 16) courses to be completed that are offered on campus only.

I’d like to rebut that argument and make the case that distance education at Harvard can provide a comparable experience if we carefully consider our definition of what a satisfactory Harvard Experience actually represents.

Ian writes:

…permitting students in some programs to get most of their degree credit sitting in front of a computer terminal, often with few opportunities for direct interaction with faculty and classmates, is a mistake. Two of the Extension School’s most popular degree programs — the undergraduate ALB and the graduate ALM in IT — allow students to complete 88% and 90% of their coursework online, respectively.

His concern seems to center on the premise that there are fewer opportunities for direct interaction with faculty and other classmates, and that this necessarily constitutes a somewhat lesser experience than would otherwise be provided by a program that was composed of entirely on-campus coursework.  I think that this reasoning is flawed.

First, there is no evidence that in-class presence helps students to develop a deeper understanding of course material.  While presence on campus might help a student feel as if their connection to a university is stronger, my own experience has been that being in class is only marginally better than viewing the same lecture over the Internet.  Indeed, I am completing the vast majority of the 64 hours that I need for the ALB from my home in Washington, DC.  As part of my experience at Harvard, I regularly travelled between DC and Boston to take classes and exams on campus and I had the opportunity to sample both modes of learning from the very beginning.  I prefer the online courses.

If my grades are any indication, I’m doing far better in my online coursework than I ever did in my on-campus coursework.

I took a number of courses in which I depended heavily on the TFs (teaching fellows) to answer questions when I had them.  I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the other students from most of those courses.   Surprisingly, that didn’t seem to have any effect on my ability to absorb the material.  With occasional help from the TF’s, I managed to pick up enough material to earn A’s (or A-’s) in nearly all of my classes.

I’ll note that there were a few instances where the TF’s seemed to be either too preoccupied or too difficult to communicate with.  In those situations, I learned that the best option was to simply drop the course and replace it with another.

But I’ll note that in no case was I ever at a disadvantage because I wasn’t able to question a fellow student for help with the material.  I certainly had to be more diligent about making use of the resources I had to grasp the material, but I didn’t seem to suffer grade-wise because I was working alone.

Furthermore, I didn’t see a great deal of class participation in the classes I took on campus.  If there was an upside to taking an on-campus class, it was the ability to buttonhole your TF or professor about some assignment you were waiting to receive back.

And leads me to the the point that I think that Ian’s really trying to make: how much of Harvard do you really get if you’ve only ever seen a few of your professors online and you only know a couple of fellow students in your program, or none?

Of course, the same argument could be made about the Extension School as a whole.  As an ALB candidate, I’m never going to live in the residence halls, arguably one of the best maturation and networking opportunities available to anyone under the age of 22.  Does that make my degree worth less as an educational credential?

I’d argue that for a significant proportion of classes, the interactive component of on campus presence isn’t much help.  I allow that there are many fields in which essentially the entire class is about teamwork and interaction with fellow students.  Management classes and language instruction are two notable examples, but I suppose that there are others.

Far more important (for me at least) is how effective Harvard Extension is at transmitting knowledge through an asynchronous medium like the Internet.  On that score, I think they’ve done a fine job.  With very few exceptions, I’ve felt that my professors and TFs have been very responsive.  In one particular case, I had a TF take my call at 11PM one evening.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet my professors in person after taking their class and felt as if I knew them well after having only ever seen them through a window on my PC.  I recognized one of my TFs from another class walking down the street and introduced myself one random afternoon while visiting Cambridge.

So, at least in my case, I’ve managed to nurture and maintain a connection to Harvard (even going so far as to decide I have a favorite professor) even though my coursework was largely completed online.

What could be wrong with that?

I understand Ian’s concerns: that the Extension School is moving too fast in expanding the reach of distance education and that this will detract from the high quality of instruction (and candidates) that the degree programs are known for.

Criticism, offered in good faith, is a good thing.  It’s important that the quality of the degree programs is maintained, even if that means forgoing some revenue or tempering the growth of the school.

My experience and my intuition tell me that these concerns are premature.  For me, the greater concern is how to increase the feeling of community and connection at the Extension School without compromising the non-traditional orientation.  If the goal is to reach further than the walls of Harvard Yard, then some form of distance education is clearly going to be in the mix.  Pointing to distance learning as the problem is simply not productive.

Thus, the better question to ask is if a program that was composed entirely of online coursework could ever be considered a true Harvard degree.  I submit that it can.

If we examine the subset of classes that are taught to Harvard College students on campus and to Harvard Extension students via distance ed, we see that they perform roughly on par with each other.  Ian acknowledges this himself.  As a somewhat crude example, this seems to indicate that it isn’t really the distance aspect of instruction that is important for learning.  What matters far more is the quality of the professors and the TFs and their own comfort with the technology.

By far, the professors I have had in my distance classes seem keenly aware of this fact.  They understand the limitations of time and place and seek to transcend them with technology.  It is possible to compensate for the sensory deprivation that seems to follow distance education.  I, for one, don’t agree that some sort of virtual reality environment that replicates a lecture hall is needed.  What could be more silly than sitting in a chair at home manipulating an avatar sitting in a chair in a virtual classroom?

In the real world, commercial enterprise has embraced each evolution of technology that eliminates the need to travel in order to communicate or conduct business.  From the telegraph to the telephone and TV, conference calling, video conferencing and the Internet, the value of eliminating the need to schedule a meeting among a widely dispersed group of individuals is clearly recognized by many.

Why should education be any different?

If your goal is to have some sort of experience, then maybe distance learning isn’t right for you.  It will be impossible with current technology to replicate the experience of sitting in a cramped chair huddled with a few others trying to master some arcane subject.  If instead your goal is to develop a deeper understanding of some particular subject or skill without the extraneous aspects of college life, then you might give distance ed a try.

Taking a distance education class at Harvard is no less valuable an experience than sitting through one on-campus.  It’s simply a different experience.  It’s up to the administration to make that a good one.

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Ruby on Rails at Harvard

I registered for my final semester of classes at Harvard Extension.

I was only going to take one course on Formal Systems and Computation (CSCI E-207), which is a taped version of a regular Harvard course.  I changed my mind when I spotted this class:

CSCI E-168:

This course is a thorough introduction to Ruby and Ruby on Rails, focusing especially on the major strength of Rails: rapid prototyping and iterative development. The course culminates in the design and implementation of a web-based software product.

I’ve been toying around with Ruby on Rails for a few months now.  It essentially a relatively flexible way to build a dynamic website application.  Lots of websites use it and it’s VERY popular.  I’m excited about this course because it looks like it will combine some traditional academic rigor about representational data models with a useful, practical skill that can immediately translate into increased productivity and opportunity for entrepreneurship.

This strikes me as a notable strength of the Harvard Extension program orientation compared to the College: a focus on combining practical skill-sets with exposure to academic critical thinking methodology.  If a student is only interested in gaining some specific skill or exposure to some specific technology, that’s implicitly provided in the coursework.  But if another student is more interested in the more expansive objectives of how this particular technology/method/topic fits into the broader picture, that’s also provided.

Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and a Computer Science professor, writes in Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education:

At Harvard, at least, students are bewildered by how the university proudly denies preprofessional curricular options to students who in great numbers will enter the professions after they graduate.[14]


The tensions between the objectives of students and the ideals of professors are evident everywhere.  The Harvard Economics Department won’t teach accounting – it once did but dropped the course even as its faculty and course offerings expanded.[204]

If you want learn accounting at Harvard, you have to take it at the Extension School.  It’s interesting that this is the case, but it does demonstrate that if what you want is some amount of practical skill combined with an opportunity to pursue a pure academic endeavor, Harvard isn’t your best choice.  You can’t major in Business Administration at Harvard.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that Harvard is a liberal arts school.  Their program is tailored to deliver a broad mix of instruction on a variety of topics.  The idea is to build a well rounded individual with the tools to think critically about the world they live and work in.  I’m a fan of this approach but pure liberal arts instruction doesn’t often match the specific needs of the population most likely to be interested in attending school while managing a career.

In a nutshell, this is one thing I love about Harvard Extension.  In a single semester, I’m taking two classes which are both about computer science, but with entirely different objectives.

One course (Formal Methods) is about the theoretical mathematical underpinnings of modern computer science.  We’ll never touch a computer in the course; the work is all about doing proofs of computational possibility and complexity.  It’s not practical in any sense of the word if you are trying to learn how to program, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to know whether you can even solve a problem or not with a computer.

The other (Ruby on Rails) is about getting some real work done.   I have a feeling that this course, combined with some traditional technical ability, would prepare a student to launch their own web firm.  I have some ideas about things I’d like to do on a website but without a structured framework to undertake the job of actually learning how to get it done, I’d probably waste a lot of time.  This course is almost a sort of boot camp on Rails for me.

I’m excited.

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Almost Done

I just completed my second to last semester at Harvard Extension.  If I continue on the path I’m currently on, I only need two more classes (one semester) to qualify for the ALB degree.

It’s been an interesting experience.  One remaining matter is the decision to pursue a senior thesis reading and research project for my last semester.  Doing so would probably make me a good candidate for graudate programs.

One thing I’d do differently would be to get my language requirement out of the way earlier.  I had an opportunity to get that requirement taken care of much earlier and I deferred it till late in the program.  Bad idea.  If you go the HES way, take care of the language requirement early.  It’s impossible to do it via distance and a pain to complete at HES because all of the classes meet twice per week.

Now I just need to get some more paperwork out of the way.

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Meep Meep Meep!

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The MBA vs. the MSCS…

One of my former Teaching Fellows at Harvard Extension recently earned his Ph.D in Computer Science.  His advice is particularly valuable to me, not just because he has progressed further in his studies than I have, but because he also spent some time in the Internet industry before returning to complete a graduate program.

To be sure, he is certainly a full measure more talented and accomplished than me.  Nevertheless, he has always been generous with his support and good advice and for that I’m thankful.

That’s why when I started to think that an MBA would be a better fit for me than the MSCS, I fired off an email to him asking if he had a similar moment where he needed to choose between an MBA and a research-oriented graduate program.  He replied:

I did, but it was a PhD versus an MBA.

I think the PhD was a better decision for me.  As an entrepreneur, it says far more than an MBA — it proves that I can complete large projects, do independent, meaningful research, and my research was especially marketable.

But I’m not sure about an MS versus an MBA.  It depends on your career goals.  If you want to be a technologist, get the MS.  If you want to be in management, get the MBA, and you’ll be attractive because your technical background will help you manage technology more effectively.

I happen to thing that this last piece of advice is particularly good.  While I’m interested in the pure research aspects of computer science, my real passion has been applying those results to real-world problems.  Industry has a lot of those problems and a person can do a lot of good (and create some great companies) if they can figure out what parts the body of research available to them apply to any particular problem and come up with a match.

So for now, it looks like an MBA is in my future.

Choosing an MBA Program

Now starts the hard part: choosing a program.  I’m almost 40, and the idea of leaving my job (and the salary) to return to school for a couple of years doesn’t seem attractive.  Business school is expensive and forgoing a salary during that time would be far too painful.  My reading indicates that a lot of people feel the same way.  An explosion of limited-residency/part-time/online MBA programs clearly indicates this.  People do not want to leave work to attend school if they don’t have to, especially if they are well situated in their careers like I am.

The upshot of selecting a part-time or limited/no-residency program is that the opportunities to engage in networking with fellow students is pretty limited.  The conventional wisdom (such as I understand it) is that a fringe benefit of a cohort type B-school program is that you meet and interact with your classmates closely to do do the coursework.  Consequently, the part-timers don’t get the same esprit de corps that the full-timers do.  If you’re looking to change careers (or justy your job) that might be harder to do if you’ve never met or worked closely with any of your classmates.

Another thing about the part-time programs is that they aren’t the gold standard for B-School education.  That title is still held by the full-time, resident programs operated by the top schools.  This has been less the case in recent years but remains a factor for things like recruiting and advancement in top companies.  Executive MBA programs have supplanted the part-time MBA programs and have tightened the admissions requirements lately but don’t seem to have achieved the prestige level of the top full-time programs.

What this means for me is that I have to decide if the gains from trying for a top program are worth the resulting lifestyle changes (in employment status and location) that would accompany an admit letter.  Right now, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Online MBAs

A close cousin to executive and part-time MBA programs is the completely online MBA.  These programs replace the classroom with internet-based instruction and meet only to administer exams or do group projects.  In some cases, there are no residency requirements.

I’m very partial to online education.  When it’s done well, it can provide all of the instruction value along with a quantum leap in flexibility and cost savings.  Of course, all of the problems with part-time MBA programs are likely to be present in spades in the completely online programs.

Student Community

My experience at Harvard Extension has shown me that the hardest part of online education is the complete lack of community among students.  There have been attempts at community building at HESA but even those programs seem to forget the online community.  My efforts to arrange for a voice teleconference option for the Pre-MBA group at HESA were never acted upon by the leaders of that group.  I got the same result with the Pre-Law group.  The email lists are always silent and announcements about on-campus events seem to be sent out only days before the actual event.

If part of my grade were dependent on being able to reliably contact and interact with my fellow students, as is likely to be a requirement for any online MBA program, I’d be pretty peeved if the school hadn’t taken serious steps to develop and foster an online community.

A couple of classes at HES (The History and Ethics of Biotechnology stands out among them) went to great lengths to mandate a certain level of participation in online communities dedicated to the class.  I can only hope that my research into the range of online MBA options available to me will show a similar focus.

So for right now, it looks like an executive or part-time MBA would be my best bet, with a strong preference for a limited-residency/no-residency program.  If it looks like the online community at a particular school is strong enough to support a robust group interaction, I’ll probably go with that option.

Next week I’ll talk about costs.  B-School is expensive and I still need to figure out my budget for classes.

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The Harvard Extension Student Association

HESA, the Harvard Extension Student Association, ostensibly exists to provide some measure of community to the Extension School population.

From the website:

Our Mission is to build and maintain a sense of community among our students. In partnership with many other organizations on campus, we provide a variety of social and educational events and forums that will enrich your life and your experience here at Harvard.

This past year has really been a great year for HESA.  Our outgoing president, Carlos De La Rosa, did his best to bring a sense of purpose and professionalism to the job.  He and his team managed to get some policies changed, sponsor some interesting and successful events, and generally elevate the operation and standing of what was (in my opinion) a pretty poorly run organization.

To give you an idea of just how poorly it functioned, until Carlos took over, there were few if any regular communications with the community, a website that was infrequently updated, and few other signs of life.  My take was that being the HESA president looked good on a resume and tended to draw those who were looking to punch a ticket rather than drive any meaningful positive change.

This year we actually had some fundraising activity, some well run events that were of particular interest to the broader Extension community, and a website that was actually designed to communicate.

Now that Carlos’ term is over, we have a new president, Ashley Pollack, who won in a landslide victory over her opponents.  Her candidacy was certainly buoyed by the endorsement of Carlos on the popular web forum.  My hope is that she continues the example set by Carlos and drives the organization to better serve the interests of the population at large.

But I have two concerns and I’d like to air them here:

  • When Carlos took office, he had a roster of candidates that supported his efforts and ran as a part of his campaign.  In essence, we got a team of people instead of just Carlos.  As far as I can tell, Ashley is running alone.  There has been little mention of who she plans to add to her team to achieve her objectives.  If there is anything truer in politics, it’s that the job is often a lot bigger of a headache than it’s worth.  Getting things done is a lot easier if you have help.
  • While Carlos did a better job of communicating with students, there was little attention paid to those of us who can’t attend on-campus functions because of distance or scheduling.  Promised video of events never made it to the HESA website and there is little explanation for the delay or absence.  Since distance education is a big part of the program’s attractiveness, there has to be some way to include those of us in far off locales.  I made several suggestions to other HESA groups to embrace simple tools like audio teleconferencing as a means to share a meeting beyond the campus but nothing ever came of that suggestion.

I’m hopeful that this upcoming year will be a successful one for HESA.  It’s my last year as an Extension student and I’d like to see us moving forward as a collective whole with some sense of community than as the disconnected islands of interest that we are largely today.  For what it’s worth, really is home to a large and vocal part of the student population.  It’s a large community that has grown organically over the past year and it shows no signs of slowing down.  In many ways, it’s succeeded where HESA has not.

I wish Ashley well.  If I ever get the chance to, I’ll tell her these things myself.  I just hope she’s willing to work with me to make HESA a better and more complete representation of the entire student body.

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