Apple: machines of self-loving grace

I am in an abusive relationship. That’s right. I am an Apple Mac user. I have been ever since computers were invented. Alright, ever since I first played with a computer, which was at the beginning of the 1990s. IPC Magazines, for whom I worked at the time, were about to “go computerised.” The NME might have been an outpost of revolutionary thought and rock’n’roll devilry, but we also had to get a newspaper out on a weekly basis (and always did, even when we all went on strike), and when I arrived at the paper in 1988, it was all done by hand.

I enjoy playing the “it was all fields” card and telling young people that I worked on a newspaper pre-computers. Some of the nerdier kids at school must have had Sinclair or BBC computers, but no-one in my immediate social circles did. Our family had the Pong game console for our telly, although we only rented it, and Dad took it back because the shop couldn’t initially supply the gun for the shooting game, and while we waited for it, we got bored with the tennis and squash games, so he got his money back. The first computer I ever “played on” was the Apple Mac Classic II in 1990, the year IPC started to move from cut-and-paste layout to desktop publishing. (Vox, which launched in October 1990, was IPC’s first fully desktop-published magazine, I believe I am right in saying. I worked on it, and typed in my first ever copy to a computer.)

If I may just reminisce about the Old Days for a moment: when I started work on the NME in 1988 the layout room was just that: drawing boards mounted on desks where grids were laid out with photocopies of photos and Letraset-created headlines once they had been “sized up” to fit. The copy – calculated into lengths from the word-count – was “flowed in”, which meant drawing a line in pencil to indicate where it would sit, once typeset. The Even Older Days of “hot metal” printing were behind us, and this is how the copy was typeset: the typewritten pages, marked up by the sub-editors in red pen, were sent to the typesetters, via courier, where the words would be “input” into … yes, a computer! So the company that had a computer could charge us to use it, basically. You can see why a large corporation might think that this had to change once smaller, more affordable desktop PCs came in.

So, in one of the very few examples of actual training I have ever had in my stupid, ramshackle career, I was taught how to use a Mac. Apple colonised the publishing industry pretty categorically. The first computer I used was a Mac, and so I became a Mac user. This was not a qualitative decision, nor an aesthetic one, and certainly not a lifestyle choice, as it may have been for other people. As a freelance journalist, you’d be insane to buy a PC and risk hitting incompatibility problems with your employers. So Macs proliferated through the print media. (The BBC used PCs, and still do. I vividly remember seeing email for the first time in around 1992 when I started broadcasting on Radio 5; our producer, John Yorke, sent a message from his PC to another BBC employee. It was magic. Although his PC had a blue screen and the words came out in white, which looked pretty knackered to my Mac-trained eyes.)

I must have taken the plunge and purchased my own Mac Classic II in 1992, as that’s the date on the oldest Word document in my existing archive: some Collins & Maconie sketches for Mark Goodier’s Radio 1 programme. I think I replaced it with a much heftier Apple Performa in 1994. This was the computer that had a modem, although I could never get it to work and it didn’t matter that much. If I wrote anything at home, I just copied it to a floppy disk and took that with me to whichever office required it. I didn’t know that many people with an email address, and I know for a fact that I wrote my first book, Still Suitable For Miners, without access to the Internet, or email, in 1997. (I interviewed Neil Kinnock for that book by fax to his office in Brussels; and when I wished to look at Billy Bragg’s messageboards on his website, I had to look at them on his PA’s, in her kitchen, and print them off.)

The Performa lasted for a few years. I have fond memories of it, as it felt very professional through its sheer bulk, and I taught myself to touch-type on it, using the Mavis Beacon programme that came with it. I will always be grateful to Mavis.

Stuart, who was much cleverer on computers than me, showed me the Internet, on his Mac at home. I couldn’t believe how long it took for an image to appear, but was moderately impressed. When I was the editor of Q, I experimented with the Internet at the office, but it was pretty lawless and uncoordinated in the mid-90s, and slow, of course. At Emap, which published Q, an “online” department was established on a lower floor, and lots of young people in glasses started appearing. Some of the magazines launched websites, and they were rubbish, but we felt we ought to. It’s amazing to think how new all this was as recently as 1996.

I found a computer engineer in South London who was prepared to do home visits and understood Macs and he made my modem work in about 1998. At the same time, he sold me a reconditioned iMac in a part-exchange deal, which was excellent value for money, and anyway, the iMac struck me as a lovely thing. Around this time, although being a Mac user was like being a second-class citizen in the world, I began to fully appreciate how easy on the eye the Mac interface was, and how nice the machines looked on the outside. And the iMac was so portable and user-friendly, I think I entered my first wave of if not evangelism, certainly preference. With the blooming of email, you didn’t need disks, and compatibility problems were becoming a thing of the past. If I’d wanted to switch to a PC, and enter a world where more computer engineers actually knew how to fix your computer, now was the time. (I seem to remember this new thing called live streaming was unfriendly to Macs initially too.) I declined to swap brands.

I liked the iMac. The modem worked from day one. And it had a handle on top, which was useful now I was 100% freelance and my home was my office, or a rented office was now my office. Moving house or office was much less hassle with the iMac. I switched from the iMac to a Mac PowerBook in around 2004, as I was doing more scriptwriting and wanted the freedom to write wherever I found myself collaborating and had moved out of London.

Stuart had impressed me with his Sony VAIO laptop and I was tempted. But something conservative within me kept me on the Apple path. It’s a strange thing. Apples and PCs look exactly the same. I use a PC at the BBC when I’m at 6 Music, and I used one to write Grass on with Simon Day, as we either wrote in BBC writing sheds, or at my agent’s office, which had PCs. Lee Mack and I wrote the first series of Not Going Out on PCs, as that’s what Avalon had installed in our rented office. Meanwhile, at Radio Times, which is part of the BBC but is a magazine, it’s Apple all the way.

What I’m saying is: I use Mac and PCs in a normal working week. But I prefer using Macs. I hate the way you have to scroll up from the bottom on the PC. I miss the sweet little icons when I’m not on a Mac. I would not get into an argument, much less a fight, about which is better. As you can see, I started out as a Mac user by necessity, not design. And when I was at Q, I fell in love with the intuitive nature of Macs in terms of graphics and text. And yet … I have an LG phone whose camera will only upload to a PC. Little niggles persist.

And the goth-black MacBook, which I bought with the insurance money after my PowerBook was destroyed in a flood at the office I rented in July 2007, should by rights still be in service. It’s only four years old. But I’ve been forced to upgrade. Built-in obsolescence is an age-old trick of the electronics and white goods industries, but the speed at which stuff needs replacing now is criminal. And the computer market is the most brazen of all. I hate it.

The old MacBook, which I did actually love, saw me through quite a bit of thick and thin. It almost became famous, as it was the laptop Richard and I used to record our podcasts on – and indeed, it was GarageBand, bundled in, that first enabled us to even consider the idea of starting a podcast back in 2008, after I’d seen it in action at Word magazine. That MacBook was seen, live, onstage, by hundreds of people. But, as regular listeners to the podcast will know, it rejected the £50 home studio Richard bought it for Christmas, no matter how hard we tried to get the two machines to mate. And last year, in Edinburgh, GarageBand finally ate an entire podcast – the infamous Podcast 123 – something that had been brewing for a while, as GarageBand would often freeze after recordings in the attic. (Here’s a phrase to strike fear into the hearts of Mac users: “Application not responding” … Force quit!)

Also, having taken my MacBook to the, ahem, Genius Bar, at the Apple Store in Central London’s Regent Street once already when the mousepad packed up due to the also-famous collapsing casing issue in January 2009, it had subsequently started to go again. If Apple are so clever, and they are always telling us how clever they are, why did they make a laptop whose casing would crack and cave in under the weight of two wrists? They call it a “known issue” as as such, will repair your casing, by replacing it, as I discovered. But the Apple shop is not a place I like to visit. It’s too friendly and clean and it feels a bit like you are joining a cult just by entering it. The staff are evangelists, and well-trained, and I hope they are well paid, because they are a bit like “greeters” who also know everything about the stock they sell. I bought my second, replacement laptop in PC World, where, at the time, I congratulated myself for only having about two laptops to choose from in the Mac section, whereas PC users had loads to choose from! But I also discovered that PC World’s competitive insurance policy only applied, at that time, to PCs, and not to Macs, which they also sold. In order to have my flooded MacBook looked at, I had to drive to the arse-end of an industrial estate to find some people who could help me. Apple Stores are all very well if you live, or work, near one, but there are only 28 in the whole of the UK, so good luck if you don’t live near a big city.

So, I have a shiny new MacBook Pro, and I am using it today for the very first time. It is faster than the old MacBook, and that’s about it. I really only wanted a like for like replacement, not an upgrade, but since my old one was showing all the signs of packing up under the weight of more than a couple of programmes running at the same time, and had begun to crash on a near-daily basis, especially if I had the audacity to plug a dongle into it, I felt I should play it safe. After all, this laptop is my office. It is my business. When I’m not talking on the radio, all the work I do must travel through this machine of loving grace. Naturally, transferring all my business from MacBook one to MacBook two should have been a breeze. It hasn’t been. Tell me all about Migration Assistant and Time Machine, but you’ll need to buy a lead to do all that. I object to all the extra things Apple make me pay for in order to be a Mac user, especially one who had already paid for the Mac itself. The new MacBook has a new FireWire socket. This means I need a new lead to connect it to my old Mac. Brilliant.

I have now pretty much transferred everything over using a portable hard drive which I bought a few years ago. I did it piecemeal really, and wouldn’t have been able to without the many Mac forums I looked up, or without the assistance of the friendly nerds who follow me on Twitter. (You know who you are.) I went to plug my iPod into my new MacBook this morning for its first charge and, ha ha, the lead had an old FireWire socket on one end. If Apple are going to keep changing things, they should let us have the new leads for free. I think, at the end of the day, I like using Apple products, I just don’t like owning them. And I don’t like the way Apple treats its disciples. It expects them to jump up and down and whoop and pay top dollar for every new shiny Apple thing it puts onto the market, and then it will release a new, improved version, that’s cheaper, about six months later, as a punishment for those early adopters who work so tirelessly on the corporation’s behalf, singing its praises and demonstrating the iPad and the iPhone by waving them around on trains.

My iPod is second generation. It had a black-and-white screen and does not play videos. It is also very big and heavy. I had to get the battery replaced a few years into its life, and I resented that, but I am determined not to replace it. Maybe it will come back into fashion. I do not have an iPad, and nor will I buy an iPad. The iPad is a racket. I will not buy a MacBook Air, as sleek and light as it is, because it doesn’t have a CD drive, and I need one of those, and I’m not buying an external one. I do not have an iPhone. If I did, I would be able to sync it with my MacBook, but a belligerent part of me does not want to give Steve Jobs the satisfaction.

Richard Herring’s house is like an Apple Store where nothing is for sale. He is Steve Jobs’ wet dream. Or is he? He hates Apple, too. Many of us do. If you are a PC user, do not look patronisingly down upon us. We are caught in a web. And Apples do look nicer. You must admit. And that’s what counts, in the end.

STOP PRESS!

I found a sad photo of the Hard Drive that died in 2007when my old PowerBook was drowned. The good people at the arse-end of an industrial estate did their best with my waterlogged machine, drying every single component out, but it could not be saved. I should have noted down time of death.

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33 thoughts on “Apple: machines of self-loving grace

  1. As one who started on a Sinclair ZX81 and followed the progress of computers I wanted to go down the Mac route but ended up as a PC owner for reasons of compatibility with work. But my current desktop machine is dying by degrees and I’ve been wondering what to replace it with. Not sure now is the time to make the leap I always wanted though.

  2. Listening to Mr Blue Sky ep3 and reading your blog – not working so paused the iplayer.
    You do realise this entry is going to kick off dont you?

  3. Each time I have had to upgrade my PC (three times in the last 6 years) I have fleetingly considered switching allegiance from Microsoft to Apple .Each time I have bottled it . Although sleeker and sexier (and pricier) and coming with an almost evangelical recommendation from Mac using friends who cant believe I stick with a PC,I have always stayed with Mr Gates.I certainly dont look down on Mac users though no doubt some pc users do and vice versa but ultimately we are all tethered to the end of a piece of string which when tugged sends us scurrying off to the shops to upgrade whomsoevers equipment you previously purchased and I hate myself for it every time.

    But I still do it.

  4. Andrew, If I recall correctly, Migration Assistant has always needed Firewire. Do you mean the new-fangled Thunderbolt cable? It’s always a pain when one gets caught as technologies change – which is pretty much annually. (It’s not built-in obsolescence though, it should be making things better. Thunderbolt, despite its name, is a big step forward – one cable to do everything – like USB but much faster and more versatile. Doesn’t stop it being expensive though).

  5. I started on the IICi as my dad was in design (car parts) and have never looked back.

    I too growled at having to buy a cable for migration assistant, but it actually works over a standard network cable too now so I did that last time. And I did it using a Mac with a completely broken video card that meant I had to fly blind to copy my data across!

    I use PCs all the time too, in fact I have Windows 7 on this iMac so that I can do all my work in fully compatible peace – and then found out there was Mac versions of all the software anyway!

    My old iPods Hard drive died so I got an iPod classic. Basically it’s like the iPod you have now but can do colour and video. The only things I’ve got on it is stuff I recorded off the TV (card on USB stick into the back of the Mac).

    I do understand the issues around Macs and upgrades and all the faff that we have now, but as I provide the IT support for my family I do wish I could push them all into the Mac world. Windows 7 has made my life a lot easier and enabled me to train up some pre-teen replacements but buying one box that works for 4 years so you can just get on with using the damn thing is so much easier.

  6. As someone that works in software development, one of the biggest decisions we have to constantly review is at what point do we continue to support older software and hardware with our customers. There has to be a natural point where supporting legacy software and hardware becomes too much of a resource drain and thus impacts on new development.

    It’s quite a hard one to do without pissing off some people so can understand the frustrations when you look at ‘upgrading’ but end up having to spend more time/money that originally expected.

    Nice nod to the Apple Mac Classic II. Was the first (and only for a while!) Mac at our school. We still managed to break it though…

  7. Apple colonised the publishing industry pretty categorically.

    Actually they didn’t.

    It depended on how you define ‘publishing’ while I concede that most small to medium publishing houses with a design studio or someone with ‘designer’ aspirations might have had a Mac or 2 in their offices during the early 90’s and peoplpe did like the ‘ooh shiny AND COLOUR!’ on their desks, having worked in publishing/print from 1989 – 2001 during those years where ‘Desktop publishing’ took off for lesser mortals, it wasn’t about Apple it was all about the software.

    Aldus Pagemaker bought DTP to the ‘great unwashed’ – and that ran on an Apple. However no one in their right mind would do any kind of ‘serious’ book publishing with such a tool where software like 3B2 and Framemaker were king (and Queen?).

    QuarkXpress which was also used by most of the newspapers when they hit the electronic age was on a ‘PC’ as they were distinctly known back then.

    Also the large companies like Linotype which did the imagesetting software were not Mac Compatible so for all the wonderful desktop wizardry, you still had to have a PC somewhere to spew out the film/plates for printing. Also the colour technology for Apples at that time was shockingly bad to say the least, and required dedicated PC machines to do our colour separations.

    We went through the whole Gamut of the Apple Desktop machines, indeed the single workhorse that was the IIcx made half the workforce that did the typesetting the old fashioned way, out of a job.

    That was a sobering moment for a young’un like me after evangelizing about how great the Mac was back then, and seeing the dirty looks (and tears) as half the typesetting staff were ‘let go’.

    Then after I became the ‘guru’, I suddenly got all these scientific publications and complicated magazine layouts to ‘process’ with my ‘Apple Magic Computer’ that we didn’t have the software for and couldn’t get because it was only on PC.

    It took about another 2 years I’d say before the Mac ‘grew up’ and was able to cope with serious publishing.

    Oh and you’d find that your Studio full of networked Macs (back then) was usually held together by a workforce of PCs (OS/2 or Windows NT) because networking was bad/non-existant and just like today Apple try to re-invent the wheel (in this case Appletalk).

    • Thanks for this technical reply. I think you may have spotted I’m not especially technical, so I bow to your greater knowledge. The job of the typesetter may have gone, but the job of the IT consultant has risen from those ashes. Imagine working in a building with no IT support, as we all once did, because there was no IT to actually support. Now there is IT in every office.

  8. I’m a freak.

    I switched from Mac to PC. And from iPhone to Android.

    I owned 3 iMacs (the blue plastic G3, White G5 and Aluminium C2D), but no longer having a dedicated desk space in the house I needed a laptop. I wanted a Macbook Pro, but I couldn’t afford it, so I ended up with an Asus on Windows 7.

    I feared the worst (despite using Windows at work every single say). I imagined that the world of the Windows user was one of viruses and crashes, slow downs and spyware. I was wrong.

    There difference between Windows 7 and OSX from a user point of view are minimal – Chrome, iTunes, Open Office, Skype, Tweetdeck – they’re (almost) exactly the same. There’s no iPhoto, but there’s Google’s Picasa.

    Keeping a Windows PC free of malware is easy – there’s so much choice of free software, and, amazingly Microsoft’s own ‘Security Essentials’ is great too.

    Apple made a lot of progress while Windows stood still, and stalled over Vista, but with Windows 7 the differences are so minimal as to be barely worth mentioning.

    If I had the money, I’d buy a new Macbook Pro today – but I’m no longer addicted to apple products.

    (You’re wrong about the ipad though – its great for movies, games, twittering and general entertainment. No use for doing any work though).

    PS. Richard will have a spare ipod cable – he’d probably let you have (in return for a bumming)

  9. Didnt the 2nd gen iPod come out in 2002? I’m not surprised a 9 year old device might need a new cable to connect to a brand new machine. In fact, all iPod’s since about 2006 have been USB only.

    I’m impressed that you still have a working 2nd gen iPod though. My 4th gen never got passed 18 months.

    • I am impressed too. It needs charging up every night, but it still operates. (I am going to rifle through my cables drawer tonight and see if I’ve got an iPod-to-USB one. You never know.)

  10. When i bought an Ipod Toch the first thing i thought after unboxing it was how it would be even better if it had a camera. Three months later……Arrrgh!

  11. The Mac lets you backup and transfer your stuff better than any Windows machine, so I’m not sure what the problem is that you had… I heard about it on the podcast and, being in the business, couldn’t get it out of my head because I like to know these things. Set up Time Machine to back up your stuff and you can restore it to a new Mac with minimal hassle.

    Apple has always moved with the times which is how they ditched the floppy disc drive a long while before PC manufacturers. They’re a business like any other so they’re not going to give cables away for free. And they have spawned an accessories business which does a lot of companies a lot of good. They don’t claim to be super-human it’s all marketing, and we choose to believe the marketing at our peril…

    • Actually the mac doesn’t do very well with backup at all. What I think you mean is timemachine is the first time a software operating system has made it simple to backup your files without any thought. However backups are pointless if you can’t restore them and this is where timemachine falls down – big time and is not very good if you use it all in anger – and I’m not talking about backing up your itunes library. I’m talking about thousands of files in different directories or not having to worry that it will erase your backups just because the one disk that it can use (oh, you want to use more than one disk? well tough you can’t you have to use that second disk as if it were new so you then need to back up the whole machine again just to use that second disk – what a waste of time and space and efficiency)

      A good backup software will also let you boot from that backup image to restore directly to the hard disk – which time machine does not so in the event of a catastrophe, you will have a lot to do to restore those precious files. You actually have to reinstall the operating system – how many hours is that? Oh and don’t forget all the updates that you need to install too. Time machine is ok, but it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination ‘better than any windows machine’.

      As to transferring files, the mac is no different to windows or linux or any other operating system.

      So either you are smoking something – or are taken in by the shiny graphics and the slick marketing. But mainly I think you are confusing Operating System and the box it comes in with the software and what you need to do.

      The Apple has simplified computing to the point that the Operating System and the Hardware are so intertwined that those that don’t know (or care and why should they) the difference and no longer have to try to understand what they are doing.

      That;s great for my Dad and my Gran but a bit shit for those of us who need to really use some elegant computing. As one poster said, they are a hardware company, that produce slick shiny products, the technology is no different from any reasonably priced PC that you can get at PC world.

      It’s a tool at the end of the day. A pretty one, but a tool nonetheless – and under the hood, past all the shiny GUI and snazzy iconography, it’s not really that impressive.

    • I wondered about that too – Time Machine would have done everything Collings wanted without any fuss – and the cables would have been provided with the hard drive.

      I disagree that Apple couldn’t give cables away for free though. Buy a £40 hard drive and you get all the cables you need for free. They cost pennies to make, even though Apple sells them at massively inflated prices.

      Given that Andrew has spend probably at least £1000 on a new macbook Apple could easily have bundled a firewire adapter, or given him a free ipod cable.

    • I feel certain you need to have a MobileMe account to use Time Machine? No? I’ve tried turning it on, on my new MacBook, and it says it does not detect an AirPort Utility. Not as smooth as Time Machine’s fans make out.

  12. From experience, even your local ‘pound shop’ will do you an iPod to USB cable. Failing that, happy to post you one.

    Not everything Apple related has to be expensive 🙂

    Great blog post, reminds me of computing past.

  13. Interesting article. I have never succumbed to the products of the Jobs, though my brother swears by them.

    I have moved away from a PC running Windows to a laptop running Linux and it is the greatest move I have made. Everything runs so much faster than the windows on the machine ever did, and I can do everything I need to on the free open-source software.

  14. Despite programming for a living, I’m not an evangelist for either side. (I started on an Acorn Atom.) But Apple is a hardware manufacturer and Microsoft is a software company. And if I have to be tied to an operating system provider, I prefer at least to not be tied to one hardware supplier too.

    My Dell desktop machine is ten years old and running just fine on Windows XP. But I only use it for audio recording now (ironically mostly to record my 78s). I’m generally using one of them there Sony VAIO laptops now, and that’s fantastic. But nothing dates like cool-looking hardware. And for the record: I’ve never seen any Apple kit at all that I particularly liked the look of. In the end, maybe that’s why I’m a PC user: I don’t really care what it looks like.

    BTW It’s usually Ctrl-Home to jump to the top and Ctrl-End to jump to the bottom. But it depends what software you’re using I guess.

  15. Smashing post, I thank you 🙂
    The notion of paper-layout and boxy-macs takes me back to my graphics training in 1991.

    For the record, I currently use Windows and Mac, and am perfectly happy with both. It’s not the logo of your operating system, it’s what you do with the computer 🙂

  16. I reckon it’s probably better to be part of Steve Jobs’ evil empire than Bill Gates’. But, if I might evangelise slightly, you can run a PC that doesn’t have Windows or any of Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ software on it. I had been using MS DOS and then Windows-based PCs since 1989 (when I was 7 years old) until I made the switch to Linux in 2007 and I would never, ever go back. Everything runs so much faster, it’s much more stable, and all the software is open to customisation if that’s your thing, and I know for a fact that with the crappy hardware I’ve got, and the sheer amount of stuff I’m running on it, a windows machine would be crippled by now – I feel totally liberated… I urge you all to unleash the inner geek and go Unix.

  17. Hi Andrew,

    I enjoyed your post.

    You are a brave man. Perhaps you should have stuck to something less controversial, like homeopathy 🙂

    I use macs at work, where I don’t have to pay for them. otherwise, linux. But then I’m an idiot geek academic with time on my hands.

    Not sure what I’d do if I had to make the decision myself, and base my livelihood on it

    thanks for all your writings pods etc

    all the best
    matt

  18. By the way, yesterday I discovered that if you put a lot of (100,000+) files onto your mac, spotlight is your enemy

  19. Nice post. I switched to a Mac last year and haven’t looked back. Couple of things:
    1. No me in computer program
    2. Mac OS X is essentially Unix under the hood

  20. I can honestly say I’ve never thought an Apple product looked very appealing, visually. If anything, they look a bit smug, to me, if that’s at all possible. (This is no comment on Apple products as products, btw, I haven’t had a lot of Apple experience.)

  21. Hi Andrew,

    You do not need a Mobileme account to use time machine, and you don’t have to connect wirelessly. Use a detachable hard drive and just manually back up to that when you feel you need to.
    In system prefs, first select a disk (it has to be connected at the time), leave time machine turned off and then manually trigger a backup using the little TM logo in the top right of your home screen (on the grey strip, two along from the wireless indicator) – just click back up now.
    The first one will take a forever, but subsequent ones will be quicker.

    Hope this helps,

    I am not a nerd.

  22. We bought our first home computer about six years ago and got a Macbook on the advice of a friend in the trade. It has not once ever frozen up or needed to force quit. In that same time I am now on my third work-issue laptop which is useless. Barely a day goes by without it freezing up and I am on first name terms with the IT department. That is my personal experience.

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