The sounds of time

This article has not been under the scrutiny of an editor.

Humans have always had stars in their eyes.

Since we began recording history, and probably before that, the stars and planets have been shaping our lives on earth. Literally, in the sense that we are but stardust held together by gravity and chemical attractions; mythically in the sense of star signs and astrology; and scientifically.

For ancient peoples, the stars, and our solar system’s own star, the sun, provided a means to measure time, direction and distance.

Once modern humans figured out that the flat earth is in fact a ball, and that we are rotating around the sun, and that the moon orbits around us, our instincts told us to go there. We wanted to, no, needed to, explore the space beyond the clouds.

We have sent men to the moon, and robots to mars. Mars is too cold and too far for us to go there ourselves but that didn’t stop our Curiosity.

Other galaxies are even further and colder, and would take thousands of years to reach. In fact, they might not even be there when we arrive, since we see them now as they were thousands of years ago.

So, instead of going way out there, we rely on telescopes to tell us what there looks like.

The Hubble space telescope hovers in the earth’s gravitational field, taking stunning photos of galaxies and colourful nebulae, or star dust.

Down on earth we can’t see very far using light and pictures, but we can use radio waves, or sounds, to listen to the skies. Like a bat maps her environment using the pattern of sound waves, so we can map space using radio telescopes.

The biggest radio telescope yet is currently being built in South Africa and Australia. It will be a 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope, and it can process incoming radio waves 1000 times faster.

With the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope, we will be able to hear the beginning of the universe.

High definition

Four thousand dishes, which look like giant DSTV satellite dishes, make up the SKA. If it were one giant dish, it would need to be thousands of kilometers across. Using individual dishes in a grid, or an array, amplifies the resolution of incoming sound waves without needing so much space.

Think of the dishes like pixels on a television screen. The more dishes, the higher the resolution. It’s the difference between a grainy Youtube video taken on a cell phone and a 1080p HD movie on a 52 inch plasma screen.

The bigger picture

The SKA has been dubbed the world’s biggest science project and will take about 10 years to build. That means it’s not just a 2 billion dollar gadget for peering into our past. It’s also a human capital generator that will spur skills development and job creation for at least the next decade, but probably even more so once it is complete.

Thousands of labourers are needed to build the telescopes which will be scattered through-out sub-Saharan Africa.

New roads and infrastructure leading to the telescopes will have to be built, so the future could well see science towns springing up all over the Dark Continent.

Hundreds of African scientists are being trained right now, at a postgraduate level, for a career around the SKA. Mathematics, engineering, electronics, computer programming and physics all have a home at this mother of all radio telescopes.

Universities across the world are sending their astronomers to Africa for a chance to be part of this massive human endeavour. At the same time, African scholars have the opportunity to be trained at renowned international institutions.

So the SKA is already bringing Africa to the world with all these collaborations. Imagine in 10 years’ time – South Africa could be well on its way to having a knowledge driven economy as opposed to relying so heavily on natural resource exports.

It’s worth it

At first the SKA’s almost 2 billion dollar price tag might sound a tad pricey for a poverty stricken African nation.

But, the project will be funded by many nations, and compared to the 3000 billion dollars the world has spent on the wars in the middle east, or even the 6 billion dollars it spends on Viagra, it’s really not that much. (Just google ‘billion-dollar-o-gram’ to gain some perspective on the globe’s priorities.)

Especially considering that wars and the little blue pill are not creating thousands of jobs or tons of infrastructure for Africa.


Naked science taboo

A religious group’s poster was found covering a nude photograph of a scientist in the Wits Geology building last week.On Thursday August 16, a poster advertising the services of the Christian Action Fellowship (CAF) was pasted over photographer Brett Eloff’s image of Tamaryn Hodgskiss, a PhD student.Eloff and Hodgskiss had agreed that acting head of Geosciences, Prof Lewis Ashwal, could display the picture in the foyer of the building to promote the photo project, which is on exhibition at the Resolution gallery in Johannesburg.

Ashwal said he did not think displaying the poster would be a problem. “I thought it would be fun to publicly illustrate, in an unusual way, the ‘passion’ our post-graduate students have for their research.”

Juliet McClymont is an Evolutionary Biomechanist who studies endurance running in fossil and modern humans. She is one of the “naked scientists” portrayed in Brett Eloff’s Resuscitare, on exhibition at the Resolution gallery until the 5th of September in Johannesburg. Photo: Brett Eloff

CAF chairperson Ndivhuwo Nethononda was not aware of the incident and said the group always told its members to put posters “on an empty spot”.

French PhD student and brainchild of the project, Aurore Val, said the photos were originally intended to become a calendar, but some senior academics and members of a funding body had discouraged the project. She said they had associated the idea of a nude calendar with pornography, and felt it would tarnish the reputation of the women in the photos as well as the field of palaeontology.

Hodgskiss said:  “I suppose people thought they’d be tacky, crude images that might do damage to the department’s image, as well as do damage to the reputation of the person in the photo.”

But Hodgskiss and Val said most people who had seen the finished project loved it. Resolution gallery owner Ricardo Fornoni confirmed that a member of one of the funding bodies visited the exhibition and enjoyed the pictures. Fornoni also said there was nothing sexual about the photos.

Eloff raised concerns that scientists who were against the exhibition might be elitist if they did not want the public to be drawn into their work through unique projects like this.

The twelve images on display show various scientists posing with the subjects of their research, including skulls, bone tools and rock art.

The captions to the pictures describe the scientists’ research in their own words. Val said many of the visitors at the show’s opening read the captions and wanted to know more about the science.

Val also said she hoped the pictures would change people’s perceptions of scientists. “They are just young, normal people.”

The meaning of death

At first I thought, “religion is ridiculous so let’s mock it until everyone sees it for what it is”. That hurt people’s feelings, and was disrespectful besides, so I decided to keep my thoughts to myself unless I was pressed – I won’t lie or refuse to answer. I changed my attitude to “everyone is entitled to their beliefs, or lack thereof, so let them be”.

But now, instead of being hurt or offended by me, people are sad for me. When I realised this, I felt the need to explain myself. I am not an atheist because I want to hurt people who care about me. I am an atheist because religion doesn’t make sense to me. I didn’t choose for my thoughts to come together in this way; it is just how I have come to understand the world.

I could pretend to believe, if it weren’t wrong in principle to do so. But what exactly should I pretend to believe? How could I possibly examine every religion and every sub-sect and every individual’s personal idea of a god? How would I have enough time to explore all the options to make an informed decision? What if I choose the wrong religion or the wrong definition of a god?

My family is Christian. Some of my friends are too. Some are Muslim, some are just spiritual and some are atheist. They’re all pretty sure they’re right.

I’m not sure I’m right at all. But I am sure it’s impossible to say for certain who is.

Is believing the wrong thing worse than admitting it is not possible to know which is the right thing?

Is a lack of belief (not the same as belief in nothing, to be clear) even worse?

How can I comfort someone who is so deeply saddened that I am “on the wrong path” when there’s nothing pointing me in the right direction out of infinite, unknowable paths? There is no way to take their despair away. I can’t believe just because they want me to, and I won’t  pretend to believe either. A pickle. And a heavy burden.

But there’s nothing to do but to avoid the subject until they expose themselves to the questions that have no answers. (Start here and here.) And even then, it seems, people will try finding anything to confirm their belief, and will ignore anything that doesn’t. Maybe because it is very hard to accept uncertainty and meaninglessness.

But I have accepted it and I have embraced it and I love my limited life. I am the only person who can make things happen for me and that’s why they do. I’m successful, happy and free. I have great relationships and I have no guilt in rejecting societal taboos. I care about fun and laughter and adrenalin. I care about health. I respect myself and my body and I avoid food and chemicals that causes harm to me. I feed my body and mind what they need to be happy and healthy. I care deeply for people close to me and for my country. I care about rights and education. I care about what I can know because knowledge empowers me to live my life to the fullest.

There is no longer any uncertainty for me. There’s nothing to be sad about. We can’t know the meaning of death, but the meaning of life is to live it.

Women in science @ Wits

  1. The 2012 Women In Science Awards is set to take place on the 24th of August. It forms part of the Department of Science and Technology’s celebration of women’s month. Last year three Wits women won awards. They were Prof. Aimee Stewart, Prof. Maureen Coetzee and Prof. Lizette Koekemoer:
  2. “In a time when one often hears of how women are not perceived to be excelling in scientific endeavours as they should, it is wonderful to see that Wits’ women scientists are winners in both who they are, and what they have achieved.  We are very proud of Aimee, Maureen and Lizette, and wish them well in their further research pursuits,”  said Prof. Helen Laburn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, in 2011. 

    Read more: 
  3. Nominations are still open for the 2012 awards and the theme for this year is ‘Using Science and Technology to Develop Rural Women and End Poverty’.
  4. But there remains a gap, worldwide, for women following a career in science. The topic has also come up at a conference hosted by the Wits Students Business Society this week.
  5. Wits_WSBS
    Scarcity of women in science and engineering is bad for these sectors- Prof Setati #WSBSBusinessConference
    Sat, Aug 04 2012 00:37:32
  6. The European Union are also making efforts to get young women involved in science, but their approach has been heavily criticised. They made the video below, but many people have argued that it presents women in science in a derogatory light:
  7. Science: It’s a Girl Thing !
    Fri, Jun 22 2012 10:54:31
  8. Perhaps they have gone about it in the wrong way, but it is still important to attract young women to the field. In computer science for example, studies show that at Wits and other universities, the subject is still dominated by males:
  9. And European Union statistics show that women in science, engineering and technology are particular under-represented at a post-graduate level:
  10. Wits does however boast many successful women in higher academic positions. Here’s a few more examples from
  11. And lastly, in light of NASA’s successful Mars landing this week, Dr Suzanne Young deserves a mention. Earlier this year she spoke at the Science Stadium on the possibility of life on Mars. She was part of the team that had sent the Phoenix probe to the red planet. Years ago, she worked with Wits Prof. Francis Thackeray near the Cradle of Humankind.

    Watch more:
  12. LIFE ON MARS? Part 5 of 8 – Nasa Phoenix Mission
    Fri, Mar 16 2012 12:16:14
  13. Read more:

Wits and Sci-Bono team up for National Science Week

Wits has partnered with the Sci-Bono Discovery centre in Johannesburg to celebrate National Science Week (NSW), a major event aimed at encouraging young people to study science.

Dr. Ian McKay from the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research will be participating in the week-long programme at Sci-Bono,  and Alvin Moodley from Student Recruitment will have a career guidance exhibition.

NSW is celebrated across all nine provinces during the week of 30 July to 4 August 2012. The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Soweto campus hosted exhibitions of the latest science being done in South Africa at the launch on Saturday. The launch was opened by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor.

Busloads of school children from the area got a glimpse into science as a choice of tertiary study and as a career path. Institutions like the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and some universities showcased their latest research.

According to the South African National Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the purpose of the week is to contribute to science, engineering and technology among various sections of the population. It is also to expose learners and teachers to science-based careers, especially those from previously disadvantaged schools. SAASTA is a unit of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Although Wits was not present at the launch, which was arranged by the DST and UJ, they are involved in the promotion of science throughout the year.

“Wits is certainly committed to promoting the public understanding of science and aside from our participation in various activities involving National Science Week, we have undertaken numerous public activities this year,” said Wits communication manager Shirona Patel.

Beyond their partnership with Sci-Bono for NSW, she highlighted a few examples of Wits’ participation in the public understanding of science. For instance, Wits was involved in the SKA campaign and hosted important paleosciences lectures, especially in light of the recent Sediba fossil findings. Patel said these were only some examples of their many efforts.

As for Witsies themselves, they will be participating in ‘career speed-dating’ as part of NSW, as well as initiatives that bring art and science together. Witsies will also be presenting and mentoring at several NSW sessions.

Editorial: Bite the hand that doesn’t feed

So it looks like Limpopo might produce a whole generation of Malemas. Education is the key to success but these northern youngsters aren’t exactly experiencing the “better life for all”.

The textbook saga is just another example of the ANC’s failure to curb corruption and mismanagement. But are voters finally going to ask: “What about the kids … what about my kids?”

Voting for the ANC in 1994 was certainly no mistake. Voting for them ever since, out of loyalty, fear, hope or whatever other reason, might’ve been a bad idea. Unemployed youth are angry and from these hopeless masses rise the likes of Julius Malema. Whether he still stands for that crowd or just stands to profit from their desperation is debatable. But he represents where it all went wrong – trying to fix things that may not be broken and further breaking things that need fixing. Case in point: education.

In a radio interview this week president Zuma insisted that education is a top priority as it receives a hefty portion of the budget. But one can’t help question why things are so bad in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo if that were true. Perhaps the wrong aspects within education are being prioritised.

It seems the ANC-led government may be trying to fix the problem from the top down. BEE, possible lower university entrance requirements, alleged inflated matric results … why not make just a slightly better effort at improving primary and high school education? Delivery of textbooks is such a basic process, how could it possibly have gone this wrong? Why not pay teachers, arguably the most important members of our society, a better salary? If you are a teacher in the Eastern Cape you might appreciate being paid at all.

The ANC-led government is giving our children a slap in the face. Yet parents and young adults keep voting for the party. Is that not a slap in the face to everyone who is trying their hardest to get ahead? Minister Angie Motshekga’s defence of her actions, or lack thereof, is offensive to say the least.

The Ethics Institute of SA should be supported for saying this week that officials should take responsibility for this debacle. An emotional observer might go further and say that Minister Motshekga is a disgrace to women who lead and a disgrace to what the ANC once was.

But forget about her. Just think of all the opportunities school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape will miss out on. Malema is right about one thing: the gap between rich and poor is widening. But neither he nor the current government has the solution.

The money is there, we just need the corruption and mismanagement to stop. For our children’s sake.

CSIR research teasers

I spent two weeks at the CSIR doing some general science communication work for the communication unit and the Natural Resources & Environment unit. These are some research teasers that appeared on the CSIR website.

Research teasers written for the CSIR website

The text that appeared on the CSIR’s website during July 2012 reads as follows:

(Banner in blue)

Researchers have mapped and measured vegetation in and around the Kruger National park in 3D from the sky and on the ground. The data collected by the CSIR and its partners will be used to improve conservation efforts. Current data suggest that tress used for firewood could run out within 12 years, and that big trees in conserved areas are threatened by elephants and veldfires. Find videos and read more in the latest edition of CSIR eNews.

Friendly fire: Alien mesquites are invading floodplains

It’s a trade-off between risk and reward for the Northern Cape mesquite tree. This Mexican legume-producing tree provides fodder and shade for livestock, but also invades grazing areas and reduces water resources. New evidence suggests that the area will suffer growing economic losses as impacts from invasion cancel out the benefits. The paper suggests that the time has come for a new approach to controlling these trees.

Prevention is cheaper than cure

Water from the famously polluted Loskop dam, in the Olifants River Catchment, ruins crops because of high salt concentrations. Researchers have investigated the economic burdens, and it turns out that the cost of preventing the pollution in the Olifants River Catchment will be less than the current cost to human health and agriculture.

SKA in SA – an international sensation

Local and international media have been buzzing with news after it was announced that the majority of the SKA, the world’s largest radio telescope array, will be built in South Africa.

  1. On the 25th of May 2012 it was announced that Square Kilometer Array, the SKA, would be shared between South Africa and Australia. The two nations had been bidding against each other to host the most sensitive equipment ever to peer into the history of the universe. Newsrooms the world over covered the momentous event and congratulations poured in from officials and citizens.
  2. NBikitsha
    A great day for S.A and Africa. Well done to all. #SKA
    Fri, May 25 2012 10:04:44
  3. Thrishni
    Kinda cool that the country that has the Cradle of Humankind will also help figure out the origin of the universe. We rule. #ska
    Fri, May 25 2012 10:56:44
  4. agentzee
    Woohoo! So proud of our #ska team! Well done to everyone! What a great day for science in the southern hemisphere!
    Fri, May 25 2012 10:19:46
  5. 702JohnRobbie
    Well done to to the marvellous Dr Bernie Fanaroff on all the work he did leading the #SKA bid. @lead_sa
    Mon, May 28 2012 02:20:08
  6. NicDawes
    As the great Laurie Anderson might have said, “Big science, hallelujah, yodelay hee hoo”. #SKA
    Fri, May 25 2012 11:02:47
  7. But the project will not be shared equally – most of the dishes will be built on the African continent.
  8. Derek_Hanekom
    Only 60 to Aus in fact “@Loelof: Looks like 2500 of 3000 (dishes) are going to be placed in Africa…that’s the type of sharing I like #SKA”
    Fri, May 25 2012 10:52:19
  9. sarahemilywild
    Recap: #SKA is shared btw SA & Aus; SA won technical and so gets lion share, along with its African partner countries. @BusinessDayDigi
    Fri, May 25 2012 09:11:21
  10. SKA_Africa
    Prof Jonas: We must emphasise that we got the majority of the #SKA. Africa is a destination for science and engineering. We should be proud!
    Fri, May 25 2012 09:42:04
  11. Politics

  12. Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor felt that the decision was unexpected. In the run up to the announcement, Pandor had repeatedly expressed her confidence that South Africa’s site was the more technically sound. Indeed, in a head to head comparison South Africa did come out on top. The international SKA team felt however that both countries had invested too much over the last few years for there to be a loser.
  13. Even if South Africa lost the bid, its astronomy capabilities already gained a big boost from, for example, the MeerKAT telescopes that had been constructed as a prescursor to the SKA.
  14. Everybody wins

  15. The SKA will not only boost the economies of the host countries, but other countries like India will benefit from the so-called biggest science project ever.
  16. BrianBoyleSKA
    One clear winner from the #SKA_telescope site decision. The Project itself.
    Mon, Jun 11 2012 08:06:09
  17. ConversationEDU
    The #SKA will drive South Africa to generate a “brain gain”, and will also “develop humanity as a whole”
    Mon, May 28 2012 19:54:32
  18. Read more on what the telescope means for Wits.
  19. Fracking

  20. The area where the SKA will be built is subject to an astronomy law that prohibits any activity interfering with the sensitive telescopes, including fracking. News24 reports Pandor thoughts on the matter: “There is no decision by government on that [fracking]. We must understand the science before any licence is given, but I will use the astronomy advantage act if necessary”.
  21. Funding Problems

  22. Europe and the US was to foot around 80% of the estimated R15- to R25-billion construction cost, but dwindling economies and America’s space budget cuts will not see this materialise; South Africa now risks going even deeper into debt.
  23. Overall, hosting the SKA has been and will be a big win for science in Africa. Construction will start in 2016 and the ambitious project is expected to be fully operational by 2024.
    Read more on the SKA in Africa.
    Click here for related stories.

The president’s privates

The artwork depicting president Jacob Zuma with his penis exposed has caused quite a stir this past weekend. Here’s a round-up of the controversy.
Brett Murray created the artwork (below) as a satirical piece for his Hail to the Thief II exhibition that opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on 10 May 2012.
But the president and the ANC did not see it as the intended political satire. The newspapers reported throughout the weekend on Zuma’s reaction:
“We have this morning [on Thursday] instructed our lawyers to approach our courts to compel Brett Murray and Goodman Gallery to remove the portrait from display as well as from their website and destroy all printed promotional material” – News24
Advocates for Zuma and the ANC will argue on Tuesday in the South Gauteng High Court that The Spear is in breach of the president and the party’s constitutional rights to dignity and privacy. – City Press
President Jacob Zuma has said while he respects the right to freedom of expression and artistic creativity, a controversial portrait of him has overstepped the marks of these constitutional rights. – Eye Witness News
According to reports, Zuma felt he was portrayed as “a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no – respect” and that he was “personally offended and violated” by Murray’s parody.
But the gallery won’t remove the artwork because that would amount to censorship, reported The Citizen.
Radio news reported on Monday morning that Government said there will be no censorship of art.
“Self-censorship doesn’t form part of a satirist’s armoury.” Brett Murray

Sun, May 13 2012 17:21:10
Threatening censorship is possibly not the best to way to show off our thriving democracy. #zuma #thespear

Sun, May 20 2012 03:19:57
The issues re the #Spear should be adressed by Pres Zuma in his capacity as a private citizen – and not by the ruling party #censorship

Mon, May 21 2012 02:38:20
Is it censorship if you fail to produce something worth censoring? #BrettMurray #Zuma

Mon, May 21 2012 11:04:51
Some questioned whether Murray’s painting could really be called art and/or if it is just plain offensive:
When “they” C fit 2 cartoon Zille’s vagina 4 all her vulgarity, racism, double standards,etc. then I’ll believe that they’re peddling “art”

Sun, May 20 2012 12:22:22
The Brett Murray Portrait of Jacob Zuma really does his work, and mentality no respect or gist!!! Its demeaning, disgusting, and a Shame!!

Sun, May 20 2012 13:44:54
I’m not sure what Brett Murray was thinking. Would he paint a picture of his father like that? Now Zuma is a public figure so it’s art?!

Sun, May 20 2012 13:03:01
Brett Murray has really DISRESPECTED Pres Jacob Zuma in a very bad way , seriously people should know where to draw the line you know nx’.

Sun, May 20 2012 13:16:01
Some thought South Africa has bigger problems than the head of state’s genitalia:
Boo freakin hoo. Zuma and his penis are haunting me now. Let’s discuss the problems we have in SA than draw huge black penises!

Sun, May 20 2012 08:35:16
We will have to wait and see whether the right to privacy and dignity of a public figure trumps freedom of expression. Someone already well acquianted with this conundrum, satirical cartoonist Zapiro, also chipped in on the debate:

Zapiro in Sunday Times. With apology to Brett Murray, no apology to Jacob Zuma. He woke up my night shift for sure

Sat, May 19 2012 16:43:16
My heroes for this week are two brave men who daringly treaded where others wouldnt.Brett Murray and cartoonist Zapiro.

Sun, May 20 2012 10:54:15
The ANC will ask the South Gauteng High Court to force the Goodman Gallery to take down the artwork.
What do you think? Is it art? Is it funny? Is the president right to feel offended? Should the painting be removed? Should ‘freedom of expression’ have limits? Comment below or vote here.
Published on on 21 May 2012.

A steep mountain to climb

Science research will play a key role in boosting Wits’ world ranking to within the top 100 by its 100th birthday, but some think it will be a difficult goal to achieve.


Wits aims to be ranked within the top 100 universities by 2022 but the university seems to be slipping down the rankings. Only 859 of Wits’ 6340 graduates come from the science faculty. The number of publications from the faculty is increasing but research output measured in publication units is staying about the same. Students are increasing every year but the total number of staff is decreasing.


Wits has dropped by over 100 positions since 2007 to a rank of 399 according to report compiled for Wits by ranking system “QS”. Another ranking system, Times Higher Education, placed Wits between 251 and 275. In ten years, Wits hopes to be placed in the top 100.

“I think it’s quite an ambitious target … it’s obviously possible because UCT’s going up the rankings, but the reality is that we’re going down the rankings,” said David Dickinson, sociology professor and president of Academic Staff Association of Wits University (Asawu).

According to the Wits 2011/12 Facts & Figures booklet, the total staff in the science faculty dropped from 639 in 2007 to 398 in 2011 and academic staff dropped from 192 to 152. Wits human resources confirmed the drop in overall staff headcount but added that the final figures for 2011 were in fact 438.

Dickinson said if Wits wanted to move higher up in the ranking it must publish and teach more, and produce more postgraduates.

Chemistry professor Helder Marques said he was surprised to hear there was a decrease in staff numbers and that it is a cause for concern. He said staff felt extremely pressurised and had to do a lot more teaching. He also said support staff was not as efficient or well-skilled as they could be.

The Facts & Figures booklet shows that research output has decreased slightly over the last few years. The booklet uses “publication units” (a measure related to how much money is received for each publication) and not the actual number of publications.

Marques, however, said that is not a good measure of research output and called the compilers of that data “damn lazy”. His own analysis showed the actual number of publications had been steadily increasing from 348 in 2007 to 511 last year.

He conceded this measure did not address the quality of the published research. He said a new system of performance management would be introduced into the faculty soon that would set targets for academics which will reflect both the number and quality of publications.

Marques also said that eight schools within the faculty rank within the top 1% of the world when it comes to citations, or how often other people reference their articles.

“We’re pretty good [in terms if impact] for a relatively small university.”

Published in Wits Vuvuzela, 18 May 2012

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