All entries for March 2006

March 29, 2006

Why Blair Should Go

his record after nine years in office is one of extensive failure, with the NHS in crisis, the schools in crisis, the police in crisis, and even the Downing Street cat (retired) dead.

Simon Heffer appears to be living in cuckoo-land, as my labrador-like nose doesn't detect crisis anywhere, although there is mild concern over the state of the NHS.

And I don't agree with the article from which that excerpt comes from. In it, he argues that Tony Blair should be kept for as long as possible, because the alternative can (not in the words of D:Ream) "only get worse".

He says that the Soviet-like Ed Balls and David Miliband (I think he means Ed Miliband) have no understanding for the real world and have only a thirst for power. Regardless of the confusion over David/Ed, David Miliband is well respected in a number of circles, including the teachers who he impressed with his level of interest and knowledge when he was a junior minister at Education. So his understanding for the real world seems just fine for me. And Ed Balls is a former Treasury hack. And since when were economists expected to have a grasp of the real world!?!

But his basic premise is wrong. In fact I suspect he only wants Blair to stay because it would benefit the Tories.

Events in the past week suggest to me that Blair should go because he has lost one of the only two qualities he has ever possessed: leadership. (The other being charisma).

On his World Tour (i.e. Asia + Australasia), Blair has tried to carry people with him on climate change and terrorism. But on both issues, there is a huge lack of trust, respect and belief. Notably on climate change, Blair has lost the credibility he had by following Bush down the line of 'technology' this and 'technology' that. The technology is there – from domestic wind turbines to solar power to biomass. What is lacking is the political leadership and bravery to bring these potential sources of energy to the masses.

When Prescott drew up his guidelines for housing planning over the next decade, environmentalists were appalled at the lack of commitment to domestic-based energy generation.

Why, oh why isn't the government pushing (and by pushing I mean implementing, not sounding off about) small-scale, community-based energy generation? Why isn't there legislation on the agenda to use rainwater to flush toilets? And why isn't government investing money in new methods of powering our cars?

I think it's because Blair thinks the market will provide everything. But he has overestimated the demand amongst the public. For our energy needs to be sorted out once and for all, our leaders need to shove the reality in our faces and enable the early-adopters to move forward.

Instead, there is practically no government support for initiatives that would make a big difference when it comes to community energy generation.

On this issue as with many others, Blair is providing rhetoric, but doesn't have the leadership to carry people with him. Contrary to what Simon Heffer is saying, the only people who are in touch with what the people need are those such as Miliband and Balls, whose focus on the community should be applauded and pushed towards Number 10 faster than is currently happening.

Blair should step down not because of Iraq, loans or any other single issue, but because he doesn't have the creativity of a leader, and nor does he have the influence.

If not loans, then what?

Predictably, the loans for lordships scandal rumbles on… The Electoral Commission says party activities may have been illegal and the police are investigating the matter.

This messy affair highlights the need for a new system of party funding, almost certainly funded by the state. Many argue that the taxpayer won't be willing to fund this sort of thing, but I'd ask two questions:

1) why?
2) couldn't elections become cheaper as a result?

The first one is pretty simple. The exchequer spends small (i.e. less than £20m) on loads of things that we never hear about. I'm sure grasshoppers and genital warts have both received more than that in government funding over the years. And surely a healthy democracy, freed from the over-representation of 'rich people' is worth paying for?

Secondly, if expenditure on elections (and most likely, party's running costs too) comes from the public purse, isn't it far easier to put a cap on spending? For instance, do political parties really require thousands of billboards up and down the country, which serve only to make Mr Saatchi richer? They may not be perfect, but at least Party Political Broadcasts are cheap. Couldn't they be increased and expanded into other media?

Similarly, if public service broadcasters are given more explicit roles in promoting the agendas of the main parties, wouldn't that have a far greater effect? By telling the BBC and ITV that they have to host x amount of debate/analysis on the election issues (i.e. not the personalities), wouldn't the public gain more?

It's possible to see this loans for lordships fiasco as an opportunity, not just for reforming the House of Lords, but also as a way of reforming democracy in this country. It's a shame that we can't adopt a laissez-faire approach to participation, but isn't a bit of activism on this front a good thing?

March 28, 2006

Two countries, two styles of protest

Watching the rioting in Paris, it's interesting to compare the level of dissent in the Place de la Republique with that in Britain today, on what some of the Unions are calling the biggest strike in 80 years.

Demographics seem to be playing a big part – in Paris there's very few people over the age of thirty in the crowd, whereas in Britain the majority of public service workers on strike are well over that age.

In Paris, it's difficult to tell who the real protesters are. Are they the students protesting that they face unemployment upon graduating? Or are they unemployed people from the suburbs, suferring from longer-term problems?

I suspect the students began the protest, but it has been hijacked by those angry at the economic poverty which affects many of the less-well educated.

Here in the UK, those concerned about long-term economic problems are the peaceful ones. There is no real concern about short-term crises, except amongst city bankers and stockbrokers. This is testament to the economic stability we have achieved, whilst maintaining good levels of growth and employment.

Sadly for the French, the 'thoughtful' protesters seem to be trying to battle against the Atlanticist model which has worked so well for the past 10–12 years in the UK. So while the short-termists may be the ones that the French government will have to listen to, they are also more naive than the long-termists who have been driven to violence.

P.S. Doidge's political prediction: de Villepin will be out by the end of the week…

March 27, 2006

Sleaze? What sleaze?

Is it just me who thinks Tony Blair has pulled a fast one by admitting he made 'a mistake' over announcing he would step down in this Parliament?

He's surely using the same 'straw man' method that he used so effectively during the 2005 General Election: make himself (and his past) the story, thereby relieving any pressure on the Labour Party (notably loans).

Some have said his answer on Australian radio was a mistake, but to me it seems like a stroke of genius, as the sleaze story hasn't been mentioned all morning, and he can't be tackled about this new 'story' because he's on the other side of the planet!

Featured in The Guardian, p2, 28/03/2006

March 25, 2006

Heard it here first…

Writing about web page

Why would the Labour Party possibly be selecting its candidates for the next general election this Summer? Do they know something we don't?

Probably. The Conservatives' theory is (apparently) that Gordon will call a snap election when he becomes Labour leader in order to feed off his own mandate for five years, not Tony's.

And after my highly-reliable tip that Blair would step down in January-February 2006 (er…whoops) – my new prediction is September-October. So a May 2007 election? We'll see.

Review: V for Vendetta

Movie image
V for Vendetta
2 out of 5 stars

Larry Wachowski: Hey, Andy, you know what'd be cool, man?
Andy Wachowski: What, man?
Larry Wachowski: Blowing up the Houses of Parliament
Andy Wachowski: Yeah man, with the Fireworks music in the background!
Larry Wachowski: Wicked. We should make a film with that in, man.
Andy Wachowski: Yeah man…

This, I believe, is the thought process that went into V for Vendetta, the first film to come from the Wachowski brothers since the Matrix trilogy, a series of films I like in principle, even though the latter two are pretty daft.

Clearly, the NHS cost-cutting measures have made it as far as Joel Silver's production company, where they had to lift bits of the script from the Matrix and sprinkle them over V for Vendetta. They also used the same approach when it came to casting. Who needs a casting director when you can just use that one-trick-pony Hugo Weaving again, and drag Natalie Portman in simply because she's fit?

I'm being unfair on Hugo Weaving, who I like in the seven films I've now seen him in (Matrix I, II, III, LOTR I, II, III, V4V), but if it wasn't for the mask, he couldn't have done the role, because everyone knows him as Agent Smith. He only got away with Lord of the Rings because of the pony-tail.

Natalie Portman too, is okay in the film, but despite the head-shaving trauma, doesn't really connect with the viewer. I don't know what it is about her, but she doesn't quite have the charisma to carry off the role.

Maybe the charisma-failure is the fault of first-time director James McTeigue, who spectacularly fails to transfer any of the stylistic goodness from the Matrix trilogy which loom large over this film. The corridors of the British Television Network don't have any of the 1984-style fascist beige that you would expect from this sort of dystopic film, and the streets of 'London' have the realism of a Disney film.

Which brings me to those very London streets. The most ridiculous part of this film is the fault of the good old Metropolitan Police. Because they just can't decide what is their weapon of choice. Will it be small swords and knives, or AK-47s? The film begins with the swords, making you think it's set in Guy Fawkes' time, but then you realise it's not at all. And this is endemic of the lack of style when it comes to action sequences. There's no good reason for any of the fight-scenes, and the camerawork isn't good enough to follow the action sufficiently. There's none of the grace associated with the Matrix films, especially compared with the Chateau scene in Reloaded.

So there's three things this film lacks:
– a raison d'etre – blowing up the Houses of Parliament isn't a sufficient plot device to carry this film to its conclusion
– an ideology – the film's anti-fascism and pro-freedom, but then blatantly condones terrorism
– style – any iconography in the film is anything-but-subtle, and there's a distressing lack of a car chase

I don't know what project the Wachowski brothers are to put their elusive minds to next, but I'll give them this advice: quit putting philosophy in films which aren't solid enough to sustain it.

Why haven't the Tories declared their loans?

Why haven't the Tories declared their loans?
Because they've got something to hide.

I expect the Sunday newspapers will be full of this, but the Conservatives are obviously trying to cover up who has loaned them money. Conservative blogger, Iain Dale, has named one of them: Michael Hintze, an Australian with British business links. I'll remind you that foreigners are banned from donating to British political parties, but clearly this rule doesn't apply to loans.

Meanwhile, political blog Guido Fawkes has speculated that many of the Conservatives' other loans could have come from hedge fund managers who've been reaping rewards from a healthy FTSE 100.

But I've got a feeling that this is the tip of the iceberg. I wonder how long it will be before we find out about more foreign loans to the Conservative Party, perhaps from people less scrupulous than Mr Hintze.

Labour are far from clean after the Loans for Lordships affair, but by declaring who has loaned them money, it's been made clear they're all pretty much British. Until the Conservatives do the same, a cloud will hang over them which suggests some of their 'loans' may have come from dodgy sources. And I wonder if the Labour Party may know more about the Conservatives' financial affairs than they are willing to discuss publicly.

The rumour mill still has some spinning left to do.

Chancellor Doidge's Budget

It's a bit like fantasy football, only it's useful and everyone can understand it. I was crap at fantasy football. Anyway….

The 2006 Budget, by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Chris Doidge

Ho, Ho, Ho… Merry Christmas. Unless you're rich, vote Tory, are about to die, have private health insurance, send your kids to public school, drive a 4×4 for 'leisure purposes', or buy stocks and shares.

Here's my budget, and I commend it to your house.

Talking of which, houses. I'm going to tax you for them. In fact, I'm going to tax you if you have more than one. If you go and buy a 'crash pad' as they do so often on Relocation Relocation on Channel 4, thereby taking a perfectly good cheap house away from some poor bugger, then I won't just charge you Stamp Duty. Oh no. I'll charge you Multi Stamp Duty! On your first house, you'll have to pay 1% in duty. But on your second house, you'll have to pay 5% in duty. And then 10%. Bad luck. Except if you're a first-time buyer and then you won't have to pay stamp duty at all. Ooh, what a socialist I am. Naughty me.

Next up, cars. Big changes here I'm afraid. Car tax will be directly related to your MOT test, which will now have to happen every 18 months. At the test, you'll have your mile-o-meter read, and if you've done over 2,500 miles in your car over those 18 months then bad luck! You're paying for them! A £100 flat fee, in fact, except if you've got a 'green' car. And £25 if you haven't hit the magic 2,500. To be 'green', it has to be on my specially-approved list. Any car that Jeremy Clarkson detests goes on there. Pretty much anyway. The good news is that if you own a Chelsea tractor, you only pay £100 if you use the bugger! So light weekend use will mean you might end up paying naff all for it.

Next up, time to make sure you don't go and get pissed before driving your Chelsea tractor. Anyone found guilty of drink-driving won't just get a fine. Oh no. We'll have your car! If it's any good, we'll give it to the police to speed around in. And if it's not, we'll recycle it and turn it into something useful. Like a slide in a children's playground.

Meanwhile, a radical new approach to taxes on drink and ciggies. Unlike that bozo Brown, tax on booze will relate to the likelihood of anti-social behaviour being brought on by it. So lager and spirits? Up you go. 5p a pint or shot and 20p a bottle of vodka etc. But real ale gets a cut. Apart from the Real Ale festival in the Cooler, how often do you see loutish behaviour as a result of drinking good old British beer? Exactly.

Red wine gets a rate freeze, while white goes up a bit. Just cos it tastes like vinegar. But British wine gets a cut – 20p off per bottle.

That champagne muck? Well yeah, great for celebrating with, but go and find some British sparkling wine. It's bloody good apparently and you should be supporting your own. Champers goes up 50p per bottle. So there.

Next up, ID cards. That imbecile Blair thinks they're a good idea, but then this is the same buffoon that thought that invading Iraq was clever. From today, I can announce that (in conjunction with Microsoft, Visa, Mastercard and the number 7) ID Cards will be free! That's right. And they'll also double up as your passport, debit card, UCAS card, library card, European E111 card, birthday card and any other card you can think of. They'll be paid for by taking 0.1% of your debit card spending from the retailer (Visa and Mastercard can carry on having the rest of their 1%). We'll install some nice RFID tags inside them (no, you can't play with them Capita) and you can go round with a nice empty wallet. We'll automatically work out how much tax you owe, and what credits we owe you, and we'll upload them to your card. But we won't allow you to go into debt on them, cos there's quite enough of that to go round. This budget's probably just created a hell of a lot more of it! Oh and just as a bonus, we'll bring in legislation that means that nightclubs have to accept your ID card as proof of age, and if they don't, you can wave your RFID-enabled card at their genitals and it'll send a 25,000 volt burst of electricity to their upper groin. And then they'll let you in.

Moving on, and time to look at income tax. Oh yes. Fun for all the family. Unless you're under 16 and then we won't even bother assessing you for tax. So you won't have to claim it back later. And we'll give you a one-year break from paying income tax at any time in your life, so if you're saving up for something you can do so for 12 months without having to worry about how much of your money we'll grab. Just 12 months, mind. Once it's gone, it's gone. Power to the stupids.

Income tax brackets will change. I'll be a lot more honest with you, and the brackets will go up by earnings each year, not RPI. I won't play around with them, and where necessary I'll just change the headline XXp per pound.

So first up, you won't have to pay income tax until you hit £15,000. Let's face it, you're going to give my most of that back in VAT anyway, so I might as well give you a break while you're so far below the average wage in the UK.

People earning between £15k – £30k pay 25% tax
People earning between £30k – £50k pay 35% tax and
People earning over £50k tax pay 45% tax.

Fair's fair I think. I'm not sure if that will blow my budget, but I'll get some bright young spark like Miliband or Balls to work it out.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that income now includes council tax? That's right. I'll collect your council tax and give it to your local council. Or councils if you're a rich bugger. Because if you've got two houses, I'll give equal amounts of money to both local councils you live in. Let's face it, you'll be paying me more in income tax, so I can afford it.

Pensioners don't tend to pay income tax, so they won't have to pay council tax any more either. I think they've deserved it.

It also means that students can live with non-students, without all being eligible for council tax. Because only the earner will have to pay anything, through income tax. If they earn more than £15k that is.

Now I know what you're thinking. Anyone earning under £15k will be able to scrounge off the state cos they won't be paying any tax. Well, you're wrong hotshot. VAT applies to everyone (even poor little kids), and those scroungers will probably be paying more in excise duty on beer, fags (up 10p per pack of 20) and spirits. Oh, and did I forget to mention? You'll have to pay satellite tax. I'll charge 30% VAT on all subscriptions to television services. So there, rich guys.

That doesn't include the television licence, by the way, which I'll scrap. Sorry BBC, but it's not working any more. I mean, I listen to Radio 4 far more than I watch EastEnders, and yet I'm not paying for that. And from next year, any television I do watch will be through my Windows Media Center-enabled PC with broadband connection. So instead, I'll pay for it out of that 30% VAT on Sky subscriptions, and the rest out of income tax. What's more, I'll bring in legislation which means I can't increase the licence fee by anything less than in inflation. So if they go and accuse me of exaggerating how good I am in bed (45 minutes, by the way) then I can't really do anything about it. Might come to regret that one.

Oh, by the way. I'll scrap BBC Three. I realise it'll leave a gap between 2 and 4, but it really is shit and More4's better. Sorry.

Also related to broadcasting, I'll scrap this silly idea of auctioning off the bandwidth created by shutting down analogue TV. I'll give half of it to small, community-based radio stations who can broadcast on it using a free licence, and the other half to the Freeview consortium so I can watch snow leopards and Wayne Rooney in high-definition. Fantastic.

Next up, one of my more controversial moves. I'll privatise the Royal Mail. Sorry. Well, sorry to the Lib Dems at least, for stealing their idea. But I'll sell it to someone who can actually do the job without making postmen use their own cars to shift post about. And they can set postal charges at any price they like. Let's face it, even old people can use e-mail nowadays and the market will just price them out if they charge too much.

But I won't be selling off post offices. I'm keeping them because they're cosy and smell a bit like libraries. Talking of which, I'm combining the two. I'll spend £3bn over the next five years, merging the two operations. Libraries will have post offices in them (not bloody tai-chi clinics), and post offices will have libraries in them. And I'll spend another £3bn on books. Apparently stocks have depleted by 20m over the last decade. Also, I'll start digitally scanning in books at the British Library and then start redistributing them to smaller places. What use are they all in one London building with a reading room the size of my thumb? Get them out to the people where they can be read, and the British Library can keep hold of the electronic copies.

Next, there's a big problem with our pensions. They've got more holes in than a slice of Emmental. I'm more of a solid Cheddar man myself, so I intend to give pension funds a special tax credit so that they don't have to pay any of those silly taxes that individual savers do.

But individual savers will be able to benefit from a bigger ISA. I'll allow you to put up to £10,000 a year in there, tax-free. And I'll give kids £1,000 at birth, which I'll invest into an ISA on their behalf. How nice of me. The money will come from inheritance tax, by the way, which I'm afraid is where I'm going to be a bugger.

IHT is good and bad in equal measure. But if I ring-fence the proceeds from it, then I think I can justify taking 40% of your savings when you go to heaven/hell/house of lords. 35% will go directly into those child savings accounts that I just mentioned. And I'll keep the other 5% so I can afford to make those savings accounts tax-free.

It's not a redistribution from rich to poor, but from old to young. From past to future. Because I'm not an analogue politician. I'm a 64-bit, quad-core, liquid-cooled politician. And if you don't think so, you can go and live in the UK's one-and-only tax haven. That's right, there's no other good use for it, so I'm turning the Isle of Wight into a free-for-all, for anyone stupid enough to want to live on that godforesaken hole.

P.S. Next year I'll be scrapping tax credits for kids and just giving you free childcare (not vouchers… I'll just pay nurseries directly). And if you're one of those Spiderman-dressing dads who don't pay your kids' maintenance then I'll set you to work making Coventry look nice. You should be done by 2050.

March 21, 2006

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

When Gordon Brown gives his budget tomorrow, he'll probably begin by reeling off a number of economic indicators, which to be fair normally sound impressive. Things like "we've got the fastest growing economy in the G8" and "we've got the lowest unemployment in 30 years". And well done to him.

But then you hear George Bush try and do the same thing and he sounds like a gimp. At a briefing in Washington, he just came out with lines like this:

"We've got lower 'average' unemployment than in the 70s, 80s and 90s"
"We've got higher levels of investment than the whole of the EU combined"

And there were others…

Firstly, what does 'lower average unemployment' mean? Nothing to those on the dole, but nothing statistically either.

And secondly, whoop-de-doo! Higher levels of anything than the whole of the EU shouldn't be a big achievement for the US considering its size and the fact that newer members of the EU25 have relatively unadvanced economies.

Nothing he said suggested that the American economy was in a healthy state at all, but you can bet that the Americans will lap up his positive rhetoric, despite the completely hollow foundations that lie underneath Bush's statistics.


George Best City Airport Postcard

The A Team

Writing about web page

In 2006 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a the IMF for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the London Underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as stockbrokers of fortune. If you have a flagging economy, if no one else can improve business productivity, and if you can afford them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

March 20, 2006

Herr Putin Writes…

Putin Writes...

New Blog Name

So my blog has a new name.

This is for three reasons:
1) the old one stank worse than my trainers after a day sat in the radio station
2) cos all the best pieces of design get buggered about with every few months
3) the divine comedy rule

So now you know.

March 11, 2006

One Presidency, $100m starting price

Writing about web page

You wouldn't know it, but the 2008 US Presidential Race has already begun. True, it didn't have the same fanfare as the start of the F1 season, but at least it's set to be a 2005-style season with a wide open field, rather than a 2000-2004-style dead cert. Oh, and uncharismatic Europeans need not even apply. Sorry Arnie.

But is the race really a wide open field? Or are some of the competitors actually on a bit of a downward slope with the wind behind them?

The 2008 election will be one of the more interesting ones in the past twenty years. Firstly, there's no incumbent, and no wannabe-incumbent. Dick 'Shooter' Cheney is well out of the race – a more implausible candidate for Prez than Leo McGarry in the West Wing was for VP.

Dick Morris, Clinton's campaign strategist has already indicated (in a money-spinning book) that he thinks we'll see Clinton vs Condi, although Ms Rice has indicated she has no intention of running, probably because her domestic policy expertise is second only to Daffy Duck.

And Clinton herself is no certainty either – Southern America despises her for various reasons, almost all to do with her husband, making wins in California and Florida less likely – and Liberal America isn't enough to get her to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

But Clinton has one thing on her side which makes her candidacy far more likely: money.

Essentially, her campaign to get back into the Senate this year is more of a front for a national campaign next year. Her fundraising capability is second-to-none and she has many influential friends – not all of them Democrat. In the Senate she's backed a number of bills which have been proposed by Republicans, and she's positioned herself as a pragmatist rather than ideologically attached to everything her party dictates.

And now the Chairman of the Federal Election Commission has told candidates to fill their wallets: they'll need $100m just to get through the primaries. That's $100m simply to persuade their own supporters to vote for them.

The Republicans aren't too worried by this figure – they have a number of very rich supporters who Bush has gently caressed over the past six years with policies designed to keep them pretty happy. Senator John McCain would appear to be a frontrunner for the Republicans – considered to be more moderate than Bush, he and Clinton have co-operated on a number of policies while on Capitol Hill. And quietly, he and other potential candidates have been getting supporters on side, particularly those who demonstrated their fundraising abilities for Bush in 2004.

But what does this mean for American Democracy? It's easy to say that money can buy you power, but we need to remember that the Presidential candidates themselves aren't necessarily rich (although it helps). They just have rich friends.

One real criticism of the process is the way that such inflated prices for running enforce the two-party system in the US. A third party is almost certainly out of the running immediately, and an independent candidate would have to be someone with access to Bill Gates in order to stand a chance at gaining even a single state.

The two-party system hasn't done America many favours over the past decades, just as it hasn't been very beneficial to the UK. It encourages disputes to be based on historical arguments that the parties have always been divided on, rather than contemporary issues. It also stereotypes Republicans and Democrats alike. We know that Democrats like big government and high taxes, and that Republicans like the opposite. But this is a caricature of reality: George Bush has actually proven himself to be a 'big-government' guy, but because he's a Republican, no-one seems to mind.

The money issue also leads to charges of corruption. The system whereby the state funds election campaigns was brought in after Watergate to seperate big-business from high-politics. But this system is optional: getting government money places restrictions on how much candidates can spend, and in 2008 there's no sign that candidates will want to hold back.

The ever-present danger is that certain interests will gain more influence than others, and which interests gain influence depends on who is elected. Hollywood and Liberal New Yorkers are highly likely to support the Democrats, but the 2004 election proved that big-business is also likely to support the Democrats too. The Republicans' advantage comes from rich individuals, often tied to the oil industry, or simply friends of the candidate.

What's clear is that the 2008 election will see ridiculous sums of money being spent on a campaign where the two parties try as hard as possible to be seen as different, when sometimes they've got a fair amount in common. But what's less obvious is where the money's going to come from, and what strings will be attached to the winner.

March 08, 2006

Varsity Day

So what if the weather's going to be miserable!?

You don't need to go and watch rugby in the soaking wet!

Listen to Varsity Day LIVE on RaW 1251AM

RaW will have coverage of every single match, with reporters at every pitch, all drawn together by RaW's Pete Swan. Join him and Rob Stevens from 2pm today for full coverage of the biggest day in the University sporting calendar, plus a chance to win a free pizza from Domino's.

2pm - 5pm
RaW 1251AM – Listen Online

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