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Welcome to 2014 January 12, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, older son, personal, younger son.
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Despite all of my good intentions, it’s taken a bit more to get back into my routine.  The youngster went back to school on Monday.  I was relieved not to be teaching this week (or this semester), but I had a paper deadline this week along with a lot of other anomalous stuff.

In particular, a friend of mine passed away at the beginning of the week.  It’s made this week seem a bit surreal.

That’s given me an opportunity to think about my priorities, which was something I had started reflecting on over the break.  I’m not one to make resolutions, but it’s good to reflect on goals.  And nothing will make you think about your goals more than realizing they can be cut short.

My thesis has been weighing heavily on my mind.  I definitely reaffirmed that I want to finish my PhD, but it’s been hard and frustrating this past year, particularly the past three to four months.  I really anticipated being farther because I didn’t anticipate how rough the fall semester would end up being.  So I’m working on getting my schedule set up to have more time to devote to that.

Realistically, that’s the one thing I’m really not happy about.  It’s a big thing, so it’s not something as simple as, “I can put in 15 minutes a day on it.”  But I’m making an effort to rearrange a few things, particularly with kid schedules, to facilitate getting more time on things.

I also want to be blogging regularly again.  The holidays and grading threw an awful crimp in that one.  One day isn’t a data point, but you need that data point to start a trend.

I’m happy to report that our housekeeping effort is going well.  That is, the kids are doing a great job.  I gave up on trying to have them get things done before the weekend.  We just schedule a time for them to work on it and, when we tell them it’s time to, they do.  (We’ve found that it seems like we can’t get to it every week, but we’re holding steady with every other week at least.)  We pay them according to which jobs they do, and we match everything they earn with a deposit into their savings account.  The house is staying cleaner than when we had a housekeeper, and I think we’re actually spending less.

This is actually much more about the kids than it is about the house, though.  I’m really happy that they are both at a point where they are taking responsibility for their chores.  I hate breathing down their neck about anything. I also really am happy about the fact that doing chores is one thing they do cooperatively.  They have a system worked out – older boy does the tall stuff, younger boy does the floor stuff that older boy hates, etc.  They worked it out themselves and, even better, they seem to have fun doing it.

At the same time, the older son is getting ready to go to college this fall.  I anticipate that there will be a lot of changes despite his plans to live at home.  I’m impressed that he’s trying to move forward cautiously and not bite off more than he can chew.  I also have no idea how the big changes over the next couple years will affect the younger son, who quite adores his older brother.

I anticipate there will be a lot of bumps in the road this year, but I’m hoping that it will be uphill from here.  I guess I’d rather start the year on a sad note so that I can look forward to how much better it will get.

Making an impression March 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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mckayla is not impressed

Female Science Professor recently discussed behavior differences at department visits between already admitted grad students and those who were still waiting to hear.  In particular, she asks, of students:

What was your attitude during your visit? Did you try to impress, or was your attitude that it was entirely the responsibility of the program to impress you?

I have to admit that this question made me cringe because my inclination was to answer, “Neither.”  I’m not one who likes to ‘impress’ people.  I like to get to know them and how they operate.  To me, trying to impress someone implies a certain amount of salesmanship and maybe even a little bit of dishonesty.  I understand trying to put one’s best foot forward, but, to me, that’s different than making an attempt to impress.  (I know I may be making a big deal of this distinction, but it makes for a much more interesting blog post than simply saying yes or no.)

Actually, I was a bit surprised by this whole notion as I took a different approach when looking at grad schools: I went and visited them first in order to decide whether or not it was worth applying.  I liked this approach as there wasn’t much pressure on either side: I knew about the program and profs based on what I saw on the web, and they didn’t know if I was a student worth having, so they weren’t as likely to give me a dog and pony show.

gallagheronbellascage (The cats and guinea pigs were feeling left out, so we should make a separate show for them.)

Visiting before I applied gave a much more realistic impression than one gets during an admitted student weekend or something similar when everyone is on their ‘best behavior’, to the point of being fake, and the activities are highly scripted, to the point of creating unrealistic expectations.  (I do see such events as useful to pick out people who really make a terrible impression.)  My later experiences confirmed my ‘gut reaction’ to the pre-application visits, so my only caution is to not ignore those impressions or rationalize them away…or let those accepted student weekends override the early impressions.

I also think this minimizes the ‘workload’ to both sides: less applications for the student, only serious students applying to the program.  I remember at one visit weekend, I spent some time with another applicant who was very negative about the program we were checking.  She clearly hated the place, and it made me wonder why she’d bothered applying.  I wondered until I realized that, unlike me, she hadn’t been there before.

The down side is that it’s not always possible, especially financially, for students to go and visit other programs.  This is especially true if the only time to visit is the summer and professors are unavailable, mitigating the benefit.  It’s even worse if that prof’s students are also gone so that you can’t have a chance to talk with them about the prof you’d like to work with.

My answer to the above questions is that I never tried to impress anyone, nor did I want them attempt to impress me.  I wanted to see how the people and place functioned and whether I could see myself there.  It’s going to be the fit that matters, and visiting grad schools is going to be to everyone’s benefit when the view of the place and people involved is realistic.

It’s working! Bwahahaha! July 18, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, grad school, research.
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I really try not to let myself post too many blog posts when I’m overly tired.  Usually this results in a post that is only semi-coherent and riddled with grammatical and spelling errors.  (The other day on Facebook, I intended to write “more likely” but it came out “morely like”…which is a sure sign of sleep deprivation.)

However, I’m rather excited that after months of trying to deal with my bad programming, the compiler not being overly friendly with my code, and some sort of conspiracy between my compiler and the communications protocol on one of the computer clusters, I am running some code for real now.  (Not just in debug mode!)

To celebrate, I am going to sleep as soon as I’m done with this post.  I sure now how to live it up, don’t I?

(Official notice: spelling and grammatical errors have not been approved by this poster but will likely show up anyway.  Especially wierd ones.)

thinking work June 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, research, solar physics.
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I have to give a presentation next week and older son took off for the summer, so between getting slides together and getting stuff and people shuttled to the airport, it was a rather busy weekend.  There was some code I wanted to work on but didn’t have the chance.

It’s funny, though, because I was still thinking about it, and I actually think I made good progress on a plan of action.  I realized I had three options: fix it, rewrite it, or throw my hands up in despair and give up. (Okay…last one is very low on the list of possibilities, but I can’t say it’s non-existent…there have been days.)  I’m not sure I can fix it, but I have an idea of how to go about doing it.  It’s a piece of code without commenting, but I know what it’s supposed to do, and I have an awesome ‘cookbook’ of numerical algorithms that explains it.  (Need a spline written in a jiffy….I’m your woman!)  I also suspect that in the process of trying to fix it, I’ll figure out a way to rewrite it a bit more efficiently, likely with less effort than fixing it will take.  And I planned out how I can verify everything, as well.

While I didn’t have much time to work on it directly, I got my resources together and know what I’m going to do so I can hit it first thing after work tomorrow.  I wonder if I made more progress by spending my ‘off’ time thinking about it than if I’d just dived in.  I guess I should know in a couple days.  But it’s funny how stepping away from something and letting your mind idle on it can result in something worthwhile.

Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
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It happened again yesterday: one of the email updates I received had a post from someone asking someone to give him a good topic for a dissertation.

It’s not an absurd question: some of us don’t have much if any guidance from advisors, though I get worried that this is indicative of a problematic advising relationship.  I’m also not saying an advisor should give a student a topic (at least not for a PhD), but they apparently aren’t even addressing the topic with the student.  However, I figured it’s a question worth addressing on the blog.  If nothing else, I can post a link whenever I see the question pop up, which it seems to do with regularity.

The real simple answer, in my experience, is to start reading.  Read journals in your field.  Look at what interests you.  Try to think of gaps or problems that aren’t addressed in the research you’re reading.  And don’t forget to go back and read the references for the most interesting articles.  Other ideas are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here).  Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity guide you.  If it’s not interesting now, it certainly won’t be in four years.  (In fact, even if it is interesting now, you might be sick of it in four years, but it’s best to make that four years as tolerable as physically possible.)

The question in my mind is whether you should talk to your advisor before or after you start doing this.  Some advisors do give their students projects, but my experience in physics and electrical engineering is that most don’t.  (My friends in the biological sciences, particularly medicine, have indicated that, in their fields, getting a topic handed to you is the norm.)  However, even if your advisor doesn’t give you a project, s/he is likely to have an area of interest where they’d prefer you work.  My MS advisor was very much the exception in that he expected his students to pick topics outside of his primary research area as a way for him to learn more about other areas.  I think his rule of thumb was that it had to require electromagnetics…beyond that, you were pretty much on your own.  On the other hand, if you had no particular interest, he did have suggestions, so he didn’t leave you hanging, either.

Therefore, as you’re looking at topics, be sure to check in with your advisor on a fairly regular basis to make sure that you’re not going too far astray (been there, done that) as well as making sure they still ‘buy in’ to your project (done that, and it’s not fun when they aren’t terribly interested).  You also need to take into consideration whether or not you have the facilities and equipment and, probably, funding for your project.  If you want to go into a certain area and need funding, you’ll likely need help from your advisor.  It’s also a good idea to do this early because it gives you an idea of how invested your advisor is in your project and how well you communicate.  Figure it out early before you get four years into a thesis project only to have your advisor tell you you’re an idiot and won’t be graduating.  (Yes, it does happen.)

The take away message should be that you should try to use your curiosity and creativity to find a project, and that you need to make sure your advisor buys into it.  Don’t ask total strangers as they’re so far removed from the situation, you’ll never get anything useful.

Some of my readers are wise in the way of advising, so I’m curious what they have to add.

If I didn’t need a job, I’d probably… April 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, grad school, personal, work.
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I am always amused when listening to people talk about what they’d do if they didn’t have to work.  I sort of found out for myself: I’d probably work.

I had a couple years as a stay-at-home mom, where I primarily was homeschooling the older child.  I also had a stint doing it when he was a toddler.  I sometimes fantasize about staying home with the younger boy, who would be much easier to homeschool than the older boy was.

Then my husband reminds me that’s not a good idea: I was pretty much going batty by the end of it.

I bring this up because Nicoleandmaggie posted about this, saying boredom would be a problem.  Oh, was it ever.  I cannot spend all day at home with a child.  Believe it or not, I had nearly a spotless house (you’d die laughing if you saw my house now), was taking care of getting kids to appointments, homeschooling, even working on an MSEE part-time…

And going completely nuts.

I really immersed myself in dancing during this period because it was one of the best ways to interact with other adults outside of school.  Unfortunately, regular training, teaching classes, and spending time outside of structured dance time did nothing to help the boredom.  It kept me busy, but not stimulated.  My classes (which I was doing pretty much one per semester) were about all that kept me sane.

The year the older boy hit middle school, he decided he wanted to go to public school full time, and I decided it was time to finish my MA.  My dancing dropped off significantly, I was working on teaching or research or homework almost every night.  And I was much, much happier.

I guess what that made me realize is that I really, really need to have intellectual stimulation, and reading Scientific American just isn’t enough to do it for me.  I like working on problems, figuring things out, working towards a goal.  If I were to win the lotto, I suspect I would just keep doing the same thing, probably by funding my own research.  (Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to find someone to pay you to do it?)  I think the biggest difference is that I’d probably be able to go on trips more often.

Are grad classes a waste of time? February 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geophysics, grad school, physics, research, solar physics, teaching.
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I have seen both Gears and Massimo post comments about how grad classes are a waste of time.  Last week, Gears said this in his EngineerBlogs post (which I’d like to address several points, but this will have to suffice for tonight) and Massimo has suggested ‘workshop’ classes. I have to say that I disagree with both of them, but I think it’s because of my weird background.

For review, I did an undergrad in physics with a math minor, my masters in electrical engineering, and my PhD will officially be in geophysics (as was all my coursework) though my project is actually on solar physics.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could have done that without the coursework.  On the other hand, I think my attitude would be different if I’d stayed in one field. In my work in electrical engineering, I use almost every class I took, especially the grad courses.  I use antennas and microwave engineering a lot…so much so, that my circuits classes are probably the most rusty.  (I know, that’s completely backwards for an EE, but that’s how it goes sometimes.)  I find myself often wishing I’d had the opportunity to take some advanced signal processing, as well.  And one of the most useful courses was numerical techniques in electromagnetics.  Not only does it help me with the work I’m doing in EE, it’s also helping with many of the things I’ve run into looking at geo- and solar physics research.

The flip side to this is that if I’d continued on to get a PhD in EE, any further coursework would not have been terribly relevant.  I think there’s an optimum point, and that may have come earlier if my undergrad was in EE.

My classes in geophysics were not as useful, and I think there were probably 2.5 classes that had anything at all to do with my research and what I’m doing now.  Realistically, for the stuff I was interested in, I probably should have looked at a PhD in physics or astrophysics…but that may not have been much better if I was taking a bunch of classes on stuff that had no bearing on my research, either (which is likely).  However, the 2.5 classes that were useful have been REALLY useful.

I’ve got a breadth in classes that most students never get.  This is one thing that I think is a bit of a sticking point for some students.  Most places have a ‘breadth requirement’ – i.e. so many classes outside of their department.  I think this is a good thing as it helps people to see what other types of things could be relevant to their research.  I really think this is something that should be required because of all the ideas that come from seeing how different disciplines approach their fundamental problems, and even having some exposure to what those problems are is a benefit to students.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that so many places require a LOT of credits.  It’s fairly common in most good EE programs to require somewhere between 50 and 60 credits of JUST coursework.  I don’t like the idea of no classes, but I really think you could trim them back and just make students take classes that are relevant to their research as well as a couple classes for breadth.  I was very disappointed with my PhD program because once you hit advanced candidacy status, you’re not allowed to take any more classes unless your advisor is willing to foot the bill.  Not likely because most advisors want their students working on their research and getting done (not that I blame them).  The down side is that there are a couple classes that I could have really used but was unable to take because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my degree.  Most of my classes had to be in the department as I’d already fulfilled my breath requirement, so taking a class here or there outside the department was viewed as a waste of time because they didn’t allow me to tick off some of those boxes in the red tape.  And of course, it becomes obvious that you would really benefit from a course once you’ve hit advanced status and can’t take any more.

It would be nice if there was a system where your advisor could sit down with you and figure out where you’re interested in going research-wise and plot a course through the classwork that makes sense and is flexible.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you discovered you need to learn about a particular topic and could then go take the course on it? It makes more sense to me than filling in boxes to get to a certain number of credits or hedging bets that something will be useful later on.

Let’s face it: research degrees are already very specialized and take a long time, so it would make more sense to cut the classes down to those that are relevant.  This would ideally save time without sacrificing the background required for a research project. Finally, a really good option, which more universities ought to allow, is independent study classes.  During my MS, I took one class as an independent study working on emag stuff.  It was awesome as I got the material I really needed in a more structured way and was able to do a project which (I’m still hoping) would be a foundation for some decent research down the line.  Therefore, I don’t feel grad classes are a waste of time, as long as they make sense, and I wish universities would be more flexible in some of their requirements.

Choose your own adventure, pt. 1 March 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, teaching.
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GEARS has an interesting post discussing his experience with both American and European styles of postgraduate education. At the end, he asks:

What do you think? Would you rather have defined your own series of independent studies than taken classes? How many classes during your graduate work have been useful for you and your research?

During my graduate career, I’ve taken classes in electrical engineering, math, geology/geophysics, and even a class on teaching.

I guess having this broad background gives me a different perspective. I understand what he means on being distracted by pretty, shiny things in new classes. However, if I felt interested in the topic matter and class, I never felt like learning about those things was a waste of time. I view it as needing some breadth in my field.

I also have the experience of bouncing around on a LOT of different projects, so it’s amazing the stuff I’ve realized I should have had but did not, as well as the things that I thought I’d never need but have.

Those pretty shiny things usually end up as some sort of idea for a research project later on. This is also the same reason it’s good to know scientists from a lot of different fields: the ideas and input they can provide are very exciting.

In my personal view, the real distinction between a class that useless or not are the ones where I felt like I got a lot out of it. By the time I was done taking classes, I realized that a good half of the classes I’d taken were a waste of time simply because of poor instruction. I would have been better off studying things on my own, perhaps with some guidance, than sitting in a classroom with a professor who views teaching as a distraction from his or her real purpose.

Teachers who are excited about their topic as well as effective communicators make a class worthwhile, even if you never directly utilize the subject they present. Sometimes you can find connections and analogies that help inform the work you’re doing. Or maybe you see something in one field that no one in the other knows about. (I’ve got about 3 or 4 of those I wish I had time to work on.) And then there’s simply the fact that you’re increasing your breadth of knowledge of your own field.

As far as topics directly pertaining to my research, I’d probably say about half of my classes were relevant (keeping in mind that I’m doing things in two subfields of engineering and another area for my dissertation). But those half were very much because the professor made the material accessible and relevant, helping me to realize I could use the information in my research. I know some information is inherently useful, but if the professor doesn’t teach it that way, you’ll never realize it.

I have more thoughts on the topic which are more relevant to homeschooling…so I’ll save those for another post.

Choosing a grad school, the emotional way January 7, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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Massimo has a great post on picking a grad school, and what it is realistic to expect. As usual, it’s all spot on.

However, there’s a couple things that I thought I’d add, if I may be so bold. What if you have offers from more than one school? You want to go to these places, and your offers are roughly equivalent. What do you do?

Actually, looking back, these are things I wish I’d done more than anything. Most of it involves doing something that I’m not great at: making a decision, in part, on one’s emotional reaction to a place and the people there. But I’m a scientist! I’m supposed to think rationally! – Yes, but at some point, determining how you feel about a situation may save you some grief down the road. I have run into issues both as an undergrad and later in grad school where I’ve wished I’d trusted when something was fishy because, later on, I ended up being right and regretting one or more aspects of a decision.

1 – Visit the school. More than once if you can. During an open house, you’ll get a skewed perception. Visiting when there aren’t tons of social events can actually be more insightful, although you’ll usually end up paying for the trip yourself. Talk to your soon-to-be advisor, preferably a lot more than once. Make sure he or she talks back to you, isn’t too busy, isn’t too distracted, doesn’t make you uncomfortable, is sober, etc.

I do realize that some people are not going to hit it off and it can sometimes take a bit to get used to a person. More than once, however, I’ve ignored such warning signs, giving another person the benefit of the doubt. This is especially important when choosing and advisor: most people are on their best behavior when trying to persuade students to enroll. If they’re on their best behavior and you’re still nervous, this is really not a good sign and shouldn’t be ignored.

(My favorite was visiting a school before I started my MS, and one of the profs was extremely condescending because they were a ‘fine institution’, while I only came from NDSU. I hate to say it, but I could help myself from dropping that I had spent a couple years at Caltech. Next thing I know, he’s talking about how they really want to have ‘fine students like myself’. I knew I could never deal with someone who was going to be that superficial and bipolar, so that school was out.)

In other words, really take a cold, calculating look at this person. You will be dealing with them for years. If you find spending fifteen minutes in a room with them is horribly uncomfortable or you lack their attention, I can bet it won’t get better and it’ll often get worse.

2 – Talk to former students. Find out if the prof meets on a semi-regular basis with students, preferably once or twice a week. If you hear things about them avoiding students, being too busy, not having group meetings, take this as a warning sign.

As a counter point, I will say that my MS advisor did not meet with me ‘regularly’ unless I was working on an RA for him, but he always, always made time to meet with me if I wanted to talk to him and never minded me dropping by his office. So if the person doesn’t meet regularly, how available are they otherwise? How are they about checking and responding to email? Keep in mind that some students can be content with this arrangement, but it’s going to be the really independent or antisocial ones. On the other hand, I have had friends who’d considered a PhD end up leaving after they finished their MS (with no help from the advisor) because they knew that they were essentially training themselves…so why bother dealing with an advisor who is never available or helpful?

3 – How do you feel about the department? Are you comfortable? Are the students social? Do they seem to enjoy each other’s company? If you get the feeling that a lot of students are avoiding socializing (as an example, the ones who show are only 1st year students), this may be a sign there are a lot miserable people in your department. Take this seriously. Being in a department of social, helpful people can really help when you hit those inevitable rough spots.

4 – Get as much info about your support as possible. If a department says they can’t specify if you’re on a teaching assistantship or a research assistantship, assume it’s a TA no matter how sure you are that it’s an RA. And if you have a choice between offers of an RA or a TA, go with the RA (as long as you’re reasonably sure it’ll last more than a year).

So, from a student perspective, these are things that I think would have been helpful. I think the gist of it is that you should trust your gut. I know that right now, the ‘market’ for open grad slots is pretty tight, but when possible, give a lot of consideration to how you feel about a place. If you have to rationalize going there or working with someone, obviously you’re setting yourself up to have problems down the road.

My brush with the mommy wars January 2, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, family, homeschooling, personal, societal commentary.
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Parenting has created a whole set of experiences for me that have left me feeling ‘in between’. The primary situation is being caught between the stay-at-home moms and the working moms, aka the mommy wars. I have been half-and-half most of the time, a position not appreciated by either camp: going to school and working part-time while homeschooling the older boy. My working mom friends either didn’t really understand why I needed to homeschool (although I don’t recall them having the same level of difficulty integrating their kids into public school) or were jealous that I was home with my kids so much. The SAHM crowd thought I should just quit school to be full-time with my pride and joy. I really got the feeling that either I needed to be like them so reinforce that their position was right or that they were jealous that I was able to straddle the fence when they would’ve preferred to jump it.

I could never clearly articulate to either group (or they didn’t want to hear) that while I love my kids and want to make sure they get a good start in life (and the public school wasn’t doing that for the older one), I was actually very frustrated with my inability to continue with my education. I viewed it as a temporary measure until I could make sure that the older one was able to get on his feet (and while we are still homeschooling now, he is largely responsible for his own classwork and doesn’t need my constant direction). I was not going to quit my education because I felt like I really had a lot of interests outside of raising kids, and I didn’t want to give them up.

A couple people looked at me like I’d sprouted two heads. Who could be selfish enough to put their own education before their kids?

I came across this article, which explains what it felt like to me:

In my private psychotherapy practice and in my personal life, I have known many gifted women who seem to possess what I refer to as the “rage to achieve.”

They are constantly driven to learn, to create and to be intellectually productive even while raising young children.

What distinguishes these women from their ambitious counterparts is that their motivation is not financial security, accolades or professional visibility; but their love for the process of learning, creating and involvement in a field or arena that holds deep interest and fascination for them.

Many of these women face periods of frustration when the demands of family and their need for intellectual immersion collides.

The whole time I was staying at home with my kid (and sometimes kids because the younger one had some periods of separation anxiety so intense and inconsolable that he was kicked out of daycare for a time), I was extremely frustrated. I wanted so badly to be working on my education and pursuing my interests. I tried using other hobbies to fill the gap, but they didn’t satisfy me the same way taking classes and working on intellectual pursuits did. And even when things were really rough in grad school, giving up was never an option. Although I thought many times about how much less stress it would be, I knew I would be very miserable if I weren’t able to continue on my desire career path.


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