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Converting the homeless to hotspots

By on March 13, 2012

It’s actually a pretty good idea.

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We published a news report yesterday about homeless people acting as Wi-Fi hotspots in Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest 2012 conference. While controversial, I think this is a brilliant idea.

If you didn’t read the news report, a marketing company called BBH got together with a homeless shelter in Autin and equipped homeless people with MiFi devices- basically 3G equipped devices that create a Wi-Fi hotspot for you to connect to and check your email or surf the web etc. These homeless guys then wandered around (something they would regardlessly do) wearing a t-shirt that said, for example, “I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot. SMS HH Clarence to 25827 for access” along with a URL to homeless hotspots website. In return, a donation priced at US$2 for every 15 minutes was suggested. Whatever money was collected, went directly to the person that was acting as a hot-spot.

Obviously, the first, gut feeling of most human beings is of disgust. How can we, afterall, objectify people as such? But if you really think about it, it takes care of something important. On my recent visit to San Fransisco, I saw many homeless people just wandering around with signs that read “Hungry” or “Feed Me.” Converting such homeless people from humans just bumming around to someone who is actually working and making money to feed themselves is a stroke of genius.

These guys probably started feeling important and needed, and I’m sure their self-esteem took a boost when they ended up making money by the end of each day. Maybe one or two of them might go out and look for a real job by the time the conference is over to continue being able to take care of themselves without relying on someone else’s pity. That, I feel is an achievement.

About the only place where the marketing company went wrong is the choice of words. As @kissane tweeted, Last thought before sleeping: the difference between “I’m running a hotspot” and “I am a hotspot” is a difference that matters.


The new iPad: disappointment turned into Homer Simpson drool

By on March 10, 2012

Initial disappointment turned into “I want one!”

You would expect that I talk about iPad 3, sorry, the new iPad, in this weekly column after Apple’s unveiling this past week. As with many Apple unveilings lately it was an anticlimax. I followed the event online, of course, and it was pretty much what we had already heard: high resolution display, faster processor, same size, LTE, etc.

My initial reaction after Apple has laid it all out was to tweet “Right now, I’m more exciting about putting ICS on Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 than this Apple event.”

Now that doesn’t sound as I thought much of the new iPad does it?

And I admit, my first thoughts were along the lines of “is that it?” But as I started reading reactions from people who had actually tried it, I slowly became more positive, and now I just want to lay my hands on one.

What I strongly suspect will happen then, when I do finally get to use the new iPad, is that I will want one. Perhaps it’ll be a month or two before I buy one, but I have no doubts that I will get one eventually.

So why do I say that after the initial disappointment? The new iPad’s retina display looks amazing, and the faster processor and more RAM should give it significantly more speed. That the camera is also improved I care less about, but it’s nice, of course. LTE still doesn’t have the widespread coverage it needs for that to matter to most users in the region, and, besides, Apple says the LTE in the new iPad will not work outside North America – bummer.

But what really excites me about the new iPad is what we’ve not seen yet: what developers will do with all those pixels. With four times the amount of pixels to play with, I can’t even begin to imagine what the UI guys and girls are going to treat us to in the coming months, but that there will be treats worthy a Homer Simpson drool, of that I am certain.

So what about the competition? Google has introduced Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), which supposedly is better suited for tablets than Gingerbread, and you would think that would make more of a dent in the market. One reporter even wrote that he has “no doubt” that a Motorola tablet that might come out later this year is a “game changer” because Google didn’t spend $12 billion on Motorola just “to spice up the Droid.”

And to be fair, some companies are trying. Asus is pushing ahead with quad-core and keyboard on its Transformer, Samsung added a stylus to the Tab 10.1 and calls it Note, and Microsoft is making a tablet-friendly Windows 8. RIM? If there will even be another PlayBook, I’ll be very surprised.

But where are the serious contenders to the new iPad? I don’t see any.

So what about developers? I am not a developer myself, but it seems pretty clear to me that the homogeneous iOS ecosystem has more to offer: an active customer base that actually buys a lot of apps, a stable (and known) range of hardware and software for which to develop, and momentum.

Let’s just take one example: Mika Mobile, makers of the great Zombieville USA game, wrote the other day about its revenue stream that it spent 20% of its total man-hours in 2011 “dealing with Android in one way or another.” That 20% generated, drumroll, wait for it, 5% of its revenue. Clearly, not a sustainable situation.

And let’s remember that Android is a platform where more than 850,000 new devices are activated each day. That’s a very large number and should push the platform forward. But the question is will it propel Android forward in a way that means it can take on new iPad? That remains to be seen.

All this means that I will keep looking out for a non-Apple tablet that could be it for me, but in the mean time, I’ll probably buy the new iPad.


The best $200 I’ve ever spent on gadgets? Here’s a hint: 35mm f1.8

By on March 3, 2012

A lens may be a better investment than a new camera.

It was just about the best $200 I’ve ever spent on a piece of technology. A few years ago I bought a 35mm f1.8 lens for use with my Nikon D90, and I’ve got a lot of use out of that lens. In fact, it’s the lens I use for probably 90% or more of all my photography now. For most of the remaining 10%, I use a 50mm f1.8.

When I bought the D90 it was brand new, I could shoot HD video with it, and it was all the rage. But now, if you look at specifications and functionality, it’s really showing its age. Sure, 12.3 megapixels is more than enough detail to capture most anything I want to shoot, but it’s fallen behind in many ways. That said, it’s a camera I now know all the ins and outs of: I know how to set almost anything and everything with the knobs, dials, switches, and the LCD display. And that’s of great benefit to me and probably means that I can take better photos just because I know the camera, rather than having more megapixels or better functionality.

The D90 has a 1.5x conversion factor, which means that a 35mm lens in effect turns into a 52.5 mm lens. My 50mm lens is in effect a 80mm lens, so short telephoto. This is because the sensor that captures the light in the D90 is smaller than the 24×36 mm negative size in 35 mm film.

Nikon 35mm f1.8

But what matters more is how fast the lens is, the f1.8. That’s called the aperture or f-stop and the lower the number the more light the lens can let in. Shooting at a low f-stop also means shallower depth of field. A shallow depth of field means that less is sharp in front of and to the back of what’s in focus. With a small f-stop number like f1.8 only one or a few millimeters might be in focus, with a large number like f22 almost everything in the shot can be in focus at the same time.

That’s what I like about this lens that I can play with a shallow depth of field. It’s almost like there’s a third dimension to my photos, which adds to everything else that comes into play, like color, texture, movement, composition, etc. And for $200, it’s been the best thing I could have done for my photographic experience, and I hope also, my photographic skills.

As you progress with your photographic skills and especially as you play with shallow depth of field, bokeh is something you will come across. It’s a fancy say of talking about how the out of focus background looks like. For example, how the circles form, how colors separate and blend together, and how light and dark areas appear. Now I should add that there’s also quite a bit of snobbery in the world of photography, especially when it comes to bokeh, with many claims that you need to spend thousands on a lens to get the right bokeh. To me it’s a matter of personal taste, for which it is hard to find an absolute truth.

So when you’re thinking about buying a new DSLR next time, consider putting that money on a new lens instead. Chances are you can get away with a lot less money and that it’ll make much more of a positive impact on your photography. And if you can also find out what your favorite bokeh looks like, that’s a nice bonus.


What to expect from the iPad 3

By on February 29, 2012

It’s time for Apple to launch the new version of the iPad.

Now that Apple has announced the press event for iPad 3 scheduled for 7th of March, lets put whatever peices of puzzle are available on the upcoming tablet to predict what it will be like. Lets start with the design by looking at the leaked back cover for the new iPad. This is what it looks like compared to the current iPad 2

You can see from the picture above that the iPad 3 is a tad bit thicker than the iPad 2 and has a more curvy design around the edges. I would guess that the length and width of the new iPad will probably be identical to the current one but exactly how much thicker is the new iPad? The picture below answers that question for us

Using a digital caliper, the above photo shows the iPad 2 at 8.69mm and the iPad 3 at 9.5mm. According to official specs by Apple, the original iPad is measured at 8.8mm so the new iPad should be less than 1mm thicker. To put things in perspective, your average credit card is about 1mm.

Now lets move on to the specifications. The biggest addition to the new iPad is what Apple calls Retina display or an ultra high resolution screen currently found on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. If you have used these Smartphones from Apple, you know how good the display is. The iPad 3 is supposed to introduce that to the tablet space with a resolution of 2048×1536 which is exactly double of the current iPad. The invite picture sent by Apple pretty much confirms the Retina display with the clarity of the screen in the picture below.

There will obviously also be a CPU/GPU upgrade on the iPad 3 as it would be pretty hard for the current A5 CPU to run things at a smooth frame rate on that high resolution display. Until a few weeks back, we assumed that the new iPad will be powered by the A6 but then the following picture leaked:

We don’t really know much about the specs of the A5X pictured above- but then again, we don’t really know much about the A6 either. I would assume that the A5X is a faster version of the current SoC but still dual core and the A6 is a quad core. Maybe Apple will introduce more than one model of the iPad or maybe Apple TV will be upgraded to A5X and the iPad to A6. We’ll only know which way Apple goes with this next Wednesday.

Apple is also expected to update the radio on the new iPad moving to LTE instead of the current 3G/HSDPA. LTE is also known as 4G and offers much faster data speeds. Rumors suggest that the new iPad will fall back to 3G/HSDPA when LTE is not available giving it both speed and compatibility with the network.

Other than the above mentioned changes, Apple might introduce us to iOS 5.1 on the day of launch along with some new apps to showcase the power of iPad 3. As far as the price is concerned, one leak suggested that prices for the new iPad will be slightly higher, starting at US$579 instead of $499 which translates to AED 2125.  Here is a screenshot of that but again, we can’t say how valid this is.

All will be revealed next Wednesday when Tim Cook takes the stage and introduces us to the new iPad but it’s always fun to play the guessing game. Do share your thoughts with us in the comments section below over what you expect in the next iPad and if you are planning on getting one. But be careful- like the previous verions, expect to pay a super-premium price on the iPad 3 in the UAE during the first couple of weeks.

I would honestly advise on waiting for the official version if you can. Hopefully we will find out when the launch date for the iPad 3 in the UAE is next week.


Whatever happened to Google Chrome OS?

By on February 26, 2012

Is Google’s operating system going the way of the Dodo?

We all know the tremendous success Google has had with its Chrome web browser. But whatever happened to Chrome OS, which was introduced with great fanfare in 2009?

Let’s retrace some of the activities so far.

Google’s Chrome web browser appeared first in 2008, and it has in just a few short years pretty much taken over the world of web browsers. A few months ago it overtook Firefox as the number two web browser worldwide, and it may become number one, passing Internet Explorer, this year.

The year after, in 2009, Google set out to create an operating system centered on the Chrome browser. It was released in November 2009 as the open source Chromium project. Anyone could download it and install the new OS, but it never really caught on. This was despite that Chromium came out right in the heyday of netbooks, these small, often underpowered, and usually very cheap PC notebooks.

The point of Chrome OS was that it was in principle just a web browser. You start up the computer and it starts up the Chrome browser. If you want any apps, you get them from the Chrome App Store. There is a little bit more to Chrome OS than just the browser, but not much at all. This means that a computer running Chrome OS should be faster than if the same computer ran, for example, Windows. It should also mean better battery life, and a less complicated life for the user, as it’s pretty much all online – operating system, apps, data, etc.

In other words, perfect for a netbook.

Google CR-48

Then in late 2010 Google sent out 60,000 free CR-48 notebooks running the Chrome OS. The CR-48 looked very much like Apple’s first generation MacBook, the black model. It was a reference design, meaning it was supposed to give manufacturers and developers ideas about what Chrome OS could be used for.

The CR-48 created a lot of buzz around Google’s Chrome OS, but because it was available in limited quantity and only to those users that Google deemed fit to receive one, it never became something for the masses, nor was it intended as such.

In May 2011, the Chromebooks were announced, notebooks running the Chrome OS from other manufacturers, like Acer and Samsung. The month after some models started shipping in a limited number of countries.

After that, it’s been pretty quiet concerning Chrome OS and Chromebooks.

So what happened to Chrome OS? Personally I suspect that Google’s interest got drawn to Android, by preference or necessity. Android has arguably commanded much more of the headlines compared to Chrome OS. It’s also with Android that Google finds itself in legal battles, directly or as a supporting act to hardware vendors, which must take up much attention and resources. And even though Android and Chrome OS are two very different products, is it viable that Google keeps both going?

We’ll have to wait and see, I guess. Personally I’m excited about the idea of a computer running Chrome OS, as long as it can be fast, affordable, durable, and connect on the go to the Internet. Most of the things I do with a computer, for personal or professional reasons, I do in a web browser anyway. More often than not, that is Chrome.

I sure hope that Google is working on something exciting for Chrome OS. Now that we know that both OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and Windows 8 are going to be very much about the cloud, it’s time for Google to step up and show that it wants to be the leader in this area.


Fragmentation on the Android Platform

By on February 20, 2012

It exists and it can be a pain for everyone from manufacturers to consumers and developers.

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Fragmentation on Android is certainly debatable. Apple loves to pull a punch or two in their fight against Google’s mobile OS and fragmentation always comes up. But what exactly is fragmentation and does it really effect Android users? I think it does. Let me explain.

When you buy an iPhone, you currently have three to chose from- the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S. Someone who has previously bought an iPhone will either have the original iPhone or the iPhone 3G making the total number of Smartphones based on the iOS platform 5. Every single iPhone has a 3.5” screen in a portrait format and one button below the screen.

Now lets talk about the Android space where 5 phones are released every week. These phones have completely different screen sizes, resolutions, form factors and button placements. For example, we just published LG’s Optimus VU Press Release yesterday which has a 5” screen with a 768×1024 resolution in a 4:3 format making it a bit squarish in form factor. Samsung’s hero product, the Galaxy Note has a bigger 5.3” screen with an 800×1280 resolution but prefers the big and tall form factor while Motorola’s RAZR has 4.3” with a 480×960 resolution and HTC Sensation XL has a 4.7” screen with a 480×800 resolution. That’s just the flagship devices of the top four Android smartphone manufacturers- forget their other models and the countless Chinese manufacturers that make Android phones. That insane amount of choices is fragmentation.

One side of the camp will argue that it’s good to have choice. While I agree that a little bit of choice is good, I don’t think what is happening in the Android space is good for the consumer. First, their newly bought super high-end Smartphone becomes a thing of the past within a matter of months and second, official updates are something you’re always waiting for. Case in point- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Google rolled out Android 4.0 ICS last year on their flagship Android device- the Galaxy Nexus. However, not a single Android based Smartphone has received the update to ICS until now- not even one by Samsung that made the Galaxy Nexus for Google. Two months is a long time in a Smartphone’s life, especially in the Android zone, and phone manufacturers must have received the update at least a couple of months earlier. Yet, it’s nowhere to be found. Compare that to a new iOS release where iPhones almost immediately receive the update.

Why is this so? Because there are way too many form factors and custom UIs that exist in the Android space and updating each one of them is not an easy task. Just look at the sheer number of Galaxy Smartphones by Samsung and their Touchwiz UI. For them to support ICS on their devices requires a considerable amount of work and testing. Forget upgrading- even a phone as new as the LG Optimus VU that is to be released next month comes with the older Gingerbread OS and not Ice Cream Sandwich. Because the amount of work required to upgrade it would significantly delay the launch of the phone. Imagine if a phone manufacturer has such a hard time simply supporting and posting it’s custom UI on its own devices, how hard would it be for an independent developer to write an application that works consistently across the hundreds of Android devices. You don’t hear that complain from developers working on the iOS platform.

That, is the effect of fragmentation. While it may allow the consumer an incredibly large number of Smartphones to chose from, in the longer run, it becomes much harder to support and upgrade these devices turning customers into ex-customers. I’ll leave you with this video from Saturday Night Live which doesn’t have anything to do with fragmentation in Android but does make a mockery of the US based carrier Verizon and how they confuse the end user with an insane number of choices in the Smartphone space. The idea is somewhat similar.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY8VMEEJxFo&w=600]


Case in point: not everyone needs the latest PC

By on February 18, 2012

My parents use an old PC and they’re perfectly happy with it.

I admire my parents for many reasons. From how they at a very young age moved to a foreign country, set up a home, raised a family, and worked hard at making a good living for themselves, to how they take such pride in the very simple things in life.

More recently I admire them for putting up with what is by any reasonable standard a very old and slow PC, using it to read news, play games, and even do some email.

My dad, who worked in construction for all his life, took some evening classes in computing 101 many years ago. He learned how to use Windows, Office, web, and email, which were great accomplishments, since he had hardly touched a computer up to that point. Then my sister managed to get them an old computer. It’s a Pentium 4, with 1 GB of RAM and a 14-inch fat CRT display (yes, not even a flat LCD display).

It runs Windows XP and has Internet Explorer 6. I’m not even sure there’s any sort of anti-virus program on it, something I really should rush right over there and fix right now. To me, it takes forever to start up, and even just opening IE is an exercise in patience. Even though my parents have a broadband connection, you can’t really tell with their PC because it’s so slow – they might as well have had dial-up.

But what is amazing is that they use this PC. They are on it pretty much every day, reading the news, playing Solitaire, and now also even doing some emailing. It may not sound like much for regular Tbreak readers, who do more in an hour on their smartphones than my parents do in a week with their PC, but it’s a huge step for them.

Being in their seventies now, and retired since quite a number of years, my parents have all the time in the world to take it easy, do some gardening, take care of the grand children, and just have a good time. It’s nice to see that they also take the time to experience a little bit of what the modern times have to offer in technology. Besides the PC, the most high tech in their house a DVD player, which they hardly ever use.

I guess if I had no other choice but to use a PC like theirs, I’d be using it. But as long as I have some kind of choice, it’ll have to be a dark day in – you know what – before I try my patience on something like that. As I said, I admire my parents for many things, and being able to happily use this old PC on a daily basis is one of them, right up there at the top of the list.

Photo by ThreeHeadedMonkey.


Who needs backup!

By on February 15, 2012

The cloud will save you.

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Something that has been recommended for computer users for many years, yet one that we almost instinctively ignore is backing up our data. While the introduction of Time Machine on Mac has made things simpler for a lot of Mac users, the vast majority still don’t back things up in the traditional way- i.e. on an internal or external hard drive connected to your computer. But you know what? Maybe they don’t need to. Slowly, gradually and silently, our backups are already being done for much of our data without us even realizing it.

In case you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about how much of our digital life has moved to the Cloud. Ten years back, I used to install Microsoft Office as one of the first things on a new computer, but now GMail and Google Docs take care of my emails and documents. MSN and ICQ are also gone, replaced by Facebook and Twitter. The pictures that I used to take from my digital camera and copy to my computer are now replaced with pictures taken from my Smartphone and uplaoded directly to iCloud or Picasa. My music sits in iTunes while streaming local radio stations have taken over my listening.

So basically, if my computer fails, there won’t really be much that I’d lose. All my photos, music, emails and documents are already backed up to the cloud without me having to worry about it. All I need to do is just load up Chrome on a new PC and I have pretty much all my data available to me.

So now that all our data resides in the cloud, the next change will be using all our applications on the web as well. There are already many instances of this- such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office Web apps, but there are still quite a few apps that I use on the desktop such as Photoshop and Premiere for working on images and videos before uploading them on the cloud. Yes, I know we have Pixlr.com and Brightcove that I can use alternatively, but they’re not as good- yet.

All I’m saying is that it’s just a matter of time before the Cloud becomes our primary platform for our digital life. And the device that provides you the best experience to do that will win. iPad anyone?


Laser or inkjet for the home office, that’s the question

By on February 11, 2012

Do I need color or want to save money on consumables?

Do you have a printer at home? Is it an inkjet or a laser printer? Chances are it’s an inkjet printer, probably a multifunctional one. But would you consider a laser printer instead?

We’re looking to buy a printer for our home. As we don’t actually have one – strange, I know – and it’s been increasingly common lately that we’ve had to print the odd paper here and there. Now, I can, of course, print at the office at work, but I don’t want to have to rely on that. See, I have this secret plan that I’m working on, that I’m slowly trying figuring out all the ins and outs of my job, so I can eventually go to my boss and say “now I can work remotely from home every day.” Having a printer at home plays a role in that scheme, albeit a very tiny role.

The most obvious choice is then to go for an inkjet printer, one that sprays small dots of ink onto a paper to form whatever it is you’re printing. These printers are cheap, almost free, and typically produce good results. Some can even print in color and some produce stunningly good looking photo printouts.

There are also lots of inkjet printers to choose from, with different sizes and options. A common thing is for manufacturers to throw in a bunch of functionality in one product, and call it a multifunction printer. Often you can find a printer, scanner, and fax in one, but who uses a fax anymore?

But with inkjets, it bothers me that you’ll be paying out of your nose for the actual ink, even though the printer might be almost free. The razor blade effect in essence.

Then there are some really affordable laser printers. Especially Samsung seems to be active in the low-cost laser market, at least one mode that is cheaper than some inkjets. The lasers can often be faster than the inkjets and produce stunning results, at least in black and white. And that’s what I’d need a printer for mainly, just print out typical business documents without color. In that sense, a laser would be better suited for me, but I’m sure I’d one day need to scan something too, and then I’d be stuck.

And let’s not forget being able to print in color – that would be nice wouldn’t it? To be fair, you also have to buy the consumables for a laser, including the powder that it uses to make the print on paper, but when you buy a laser cartridge you feel as though you get so much more than you do when you buy an inkjet cartridge. Most of the time that is also true, that you do get more pages for less cost per page with a laser.

There you go, my present predicament is nowhere closer to being solved. So my search for a reliable and affordable printer continues.

Photo by tom_bullock.


Interior Design goes geeky

By on February 8, 2012

5 quick ways to bring some geek chic to your home or office.

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I’m sitting in my office and wondering to myself “Why on earth do we not have any posters around here?” For an office that is piled high with gadgets and games, the only thing hanging on our wall is a lonely whiteboard. Which is not a great thing considering I’ve supposed to have studied Interior Design as well.

Thankfully, there are some quick things you can do for your home or office to bring some very cute geek chic looks that won’t break your bank.

Get cushy
Cushions are a great way to jazz up chairs and sofas, and what better way to celebrate your inner geek than with some geek-inspired cushions? There’s a “Ctrl+Alt+Del” cushion for the Windows lovers, or even cushions based on logos of popular social media networks. We personally love the ones based on Adobe’s suite of products – who doesn’t like to snuggle up to a bit of InDesign?

Recolor your coffee mug
If you’re a designer and need that extra cup of coffee to get you through yet another night at home working on projects, why not grab a cup of coffee in your very own Pantone mug? They’re a great way to bring some color when sharing a cup or two with friends, and with literally hundreds of colors to choose from, these mugs will certainly get you the nod of approval from your fellow overworked designers.

Get plastered
No, no, not that – we’re talking about walls here. Wallpaper is a great way to breathe new life into a room instead of repainting it, but putting up wallpaper can be a bit of a challenge if not done correctly. So why not play it safe and grab some geeky wall decals? Companies like Blik and Wall Cravings both offer some classic and easy to apply wall transfers, such as Space Invaders, Mario, and even Donkey Kong to turn your boring walls into a gaming masterpiece.

Turn cables into art
There are so many cables under my desk that I’m tempted to dive under and see if any of them actually lead back to Narnia. While most of us  tend to get away with messy cabling at our office, it becomes a bit of an eyesore at home. So rather than shoving cables behind couches and binding them together with tape, why not get a little bit adventurous and artistic? Glue or Velcro your cables to the wall in interesting patterns to make for a very unique way to manage your cables. Just make sure you’ve sorted out your design first on paper before fixing things to the wall.

Accessorize with USB toys!
Okay this one is more for your office desk than for your home, so forgive me. While we traditionally plug all kinds of devices into USB ports, there are a couple of fun things that you can plug in as well, such as mini lava lamps, mug warmers, foam missile launchers, fans, and even a plasma globe. If you’ve got a USB hub handy or a lot of ports free on your PC, then plug in some quirky USB toys and waste the hours away!


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