Multi-tasking or Multi-task-switching?

This week, reviewing the readings about attention and multitasking, gave me a chance to reflect on my personal experiences with multitasking. I used to be proud of being a multitask-er. In undergrad and first few semesters of my graduate degree, in an attempt to be more “efficient” (which was my code for more time to play video games), I would browse email while listening to news articles via text-to-speech, answer texts while reading books or journal articles, and talk on the phone while cooking or doing chores.  Over time, I began to notice a significant drop in productivity as I would have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. I went from consuming books on a regular, to having trouble finishing a 2-3 page news article. I realized that efficiency was affecting quality of my work. This house of cards came crashing down in the Spring of 2015, when I went on academic probation for not maintaining a satisfactory GPA. Multi-tasking was not the only issue in my life that led to probation, but it played a part.

Lessons learned, drastic changes made.

This was the time I started reading about the research looking into multitasking and concluding that multitasking is actually multi-task-switching, but at the cost of loss in attention spans. I decided to start prioritizing and focusing on one thing at a time rather than multiple things at once. By doing this, and taking regular breaks during the course of the day to calm my obsessive mind, I noticed that I was actually getting more done. Slowing down what you do can help you get more done. This was my ah-ha moment when I read Technology: Myth of Multitasking.

Needless to say, I am no longer (proud of being) a multitask-er.

May I have an hour of your time?

If you’re an academic, perhaps a better question might be: “Do you have an hour of time?”

If you do (and you’re interested in meditation, attention, and mindfulness) I’d humbly suggest watching the following talk of Tenzin Palmo’s:

This woman, for a number of years, lived alone inside of a mountain cave. During this time she meditated for most of the day; only stirring to care for the minimum requirements of her body.

She probably knows  a thing or two about mindfulness — at least from my perspective.  But, by her own admission, she still has a long way to go.

Which brings up an interesting point… when do we become ‘aware’? How many caves must we mediate in to reach mindfulness? How long will it take?

The Buddha says we will all get there someday. But that’s not my point here. When we view mindfulness as a goal (rather than a process), we rob ourselves of the experience that promotes it.  And it is precisely the experience — the  struggle — that gifts us a greater awareness.  Struggling with the troubles of our mind that keep us distracted is just as much a part of mindfulness as crying is a part of love.  There is no shortcut here.

Forcing our students to close their laptops in class, reading five-minute opinion pieces on mindfulness published along side of flashing ad banners on the internet, or trying to mono-task while clutching to a fundamentally multi-tasked life are all simply recipes for disappointment. These ideas are not inherently bad, but they do presuppose attention as a ends — grasping for a state of attention blinds us to the fact that grasping was what delivered us to a state of distraction in the first place. Palmo wisely says this is like drinking salt water — the more we drink the thirstier we become.



If you’ll allow me to extent this concept to diversity for a moment. . .  Where do we go to find diversity? How do we get there? How long does it take?

If I can use myself as an example…

I’ve walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.

And protested authors when they give talks at Virginia Tech.

But I couldn’t tell what it’s like to be black in America. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.


I’ve studied Aikido for a number of years under the supervision of a dojo located in Okazaki, Japan.

And I’ve volunteered my time to help construct a pagoda in the Nichiren tradition.

But I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be Japanese. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.


I’ve protested the conditions illegal immigrants are held under in the United States.

And I’ve protested the US’s involvement in Central America that supports many of the systems that spur that same immigration.

But, again, I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be Salvadoran. I can only tell you what people have told me when I’ve listened to their experiences.

If I’ve buried the lead here, let me clarify. Diversity, just like mindfulness, isn’t a destination. It’s an experience. It’s a process.  And for it to be, we must practice it.

It’s a little like what Mr. Rogers taught me about love:

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

So when it comes to teaching, how do we accept our students for who they are? How do we… diversify? Thich Nhat Hanh has a suggestion that might resonate with you:

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”

So with all this in mind, I’ll give you my diversity statement. It’s not written for other professors or to help me get hired. It (or something close to it) is simply what I’ll be including in my syllabi from now on:


I don’t know you.

I can’t emphasize that enough.

At the beginning of the semester, I don’t know your story. I don’t know where you come from or what you bring with you. I don’t know your beliefs, your values, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, or your passions. And I certainly don’t think I can figure that out by looking at you.

But I do know this. If you’re bold enough to express these things this semester — I’ll listen.  And, together, we’ll figure out how this class can fit into your story.



Why Are You Here?

Why are you here? That’s the question that we may ask students or ask ourselves as students. Why? If we are in class because we are interested in learning a specific topic, I believe that the probability of paying attention to the class may be higher than if we are there just to meet a requirement. Don’t you think so? Won’t you be more engaged in the class?

I believe that laptops when are not “truly needed”, are a very distractive tool in the classroom. Especially, when you are not interested or bored in the class. I speak for myself, I have used my laptop during classes to answer emails, check facebook, read the news, shopping, and so on. This happens when I lose the attention of the class.

Two of the reasons for students using laptops during classes are to 1) take notes and 2) to follow the class material. However, for me, it turns very difficult to take notes with my laptop. During my undergrad and master studies, I always wrote by hand everything. Thus, when I was studying for the exams I remembered that I have written something about the specific doubt in my notebook.

According to Darren Rosenblum,

“Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts”.

Now, the question is, are you a multitasking person?  Undoubtedly, if you want to listen, to understand what the professor is saying and to take notes at the same time, you need multitasking skills.

I used to be very good at multitasking activities when I was in Colombia. However, since I started to take classes here in the United States, this became a challenge for me. I can not do it. I mean, I can write something but I forget what the professor says very quickly. Meanwhile, I am taking notes, I am listening but all my attention is not there. So, at the end, I am very lost. Essential activities such as listening, reading, thinking, and writing, when combined are challenging by nature but these are even more challenging when you have to do it at the same time in your non-native language.

By coincidence, I took a multitask test this week to help my friend collecting data for a class. The first exercise consisted of memorizing numbers of 6 digits that appeared one at a time for 3 seconds on the computer screen. Then, I had to select the respective number between two options that were very similar. I had to say left or right depending on the location of the answer. At the same time, I had to play Tetris and try to score the highest score. In the second exercise, instead of memorizing the numbers, I had to hear numbers in a recording and then I had to subtract 1 to each number and to report the result. Again, I was playing Tetris at the same time. Guess what? I did so bad with the Tetris (look at my score, that’s very embarrassing!). I could not do both tasks at the time successfully. So, my question is, how can we improve our multitasking skills? Are we relying so much on Google?


Won’t We Need to be Able of Critical Thinking Ourselves?

As commonly mistaken and as described in “Paulo Freire and Critical Pedagogyby Shelli Fowler, teaching does not consist of communicating the body of knowledge only. Teaching is a complex construct that encompasses several dimensions, including knowledge production, student’s encouragement and several concepts that should get included in the classroom such as diversity. But how to achieve such challenge? It sounds like a difficult task, but critical pedagogy and critical thinking provide a guide to be followed within the higher education context.

Critical pedagogy should be promoted in the classrooms in order to allow students not only to receive information but also to reflect and analyze the topics covered during the class. We should stop giving students a lot of information to memorize. Instead, we should incentive them to relate the class’ concepts or topics with their career practice or why not, with what is happening in today’s world.

Critical pedagogy involves the participation not only of the students but also of the professors. This is an interactive process where both groups can learn. But, how to incorporate critical thinking in the classroom? We should come back to the basics as Bell Hooks mentioned in his book “Teaching Critical Thinking”. We should encourage students to interrogate all the time what they are learning. Children’s learning is a great illustration. Children are not afraid of asking “why” all the time. And taking into account that in our daily lives we don’t know the answer to many questions, asking questions is a practice that should get encouraged in the classroom. Because if we don’t know the answer, someone in the classroom may do, which is why diverse environments are a lot more beneficial for the learning process. Additionally, everyone will understand and perceive the concepts/ideas/or issues in different ways. For that reason, we have to show them not only the positive side of a specific topic but also its contradictions. As Paulo Freire described in his article “The Critical Pedagogy Primer”, we can incorporate in the class thought experiments where we can ask students “what would happen if”.

Here is an example given by Armani. She has a disabled student in her TA course, Fluids Mechanics this semester. The primary physical issue for this student is the difficulty of moving his hands and legs like normal people, such that he needs a writer to help him do homework. He comes to her homework help session every week. For his convenience, Armani tried to become his writer and guide him to solve the problems on the whiteboard. But gradually, she noticed that he became very dependent, paid more attention to the final answer rather than the procedure, and did not think about problems by himself before coming to the help sessions. These behaviors also reflected on the grade of his first exam. In engineering, critical thinking is significant for learning not only in the classroom but also when they are practicing applying the concepts and principles to homework problems by themselves. Typically, we can ask students to show their calculation and explain what they think to us. However, because of the special conditions of this student, the general strategy seems not working. Also, when the educational systems and educators try to accommodate their inconvenience, sometimes it might discourage them to be become independent learners. Recently, inspiring from the reading of GEDI materials, Armani has found that for this type of students, we actually need to spend even much more time on asking them questions (e.g., “Why?”, “What do you think?”, “What is next?”, “Does this remind you anything you learned in class?”) and give them even much more time to think.  This is the way not only to teach them how to think critically but also help them to internalize the knowledge and develop their own logical ways to solve the problems.

In summary, these are some illustrations of how Critical Pedagogy’s strategies can contribute significantly to the learning process. These theories and strategies lead to a practice that can get applied in the different fields of knowledge, both in the social and technical ones. Incorporating a process of analysis and synthesis, providing a safe space so questions and discussion are encouraged, and acknowledging the potential of diversity in the classroom; lead to a better learning process and contribute to the creation of critical thinkers all around us.

To fit in or not to fit in… That is the question.

Living in Southwestern Virginia, I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am not from here. Be it a barista misspelling my name or someone having trouble understanding me on the phone. While I haven’t experienced blatant racism in Blacksburg or anywhere else in the US, I have constantly pondered whether I should make more of an effort trying to fit in. Maybe put more effort to acquire the American accent? Maybe a generic anglicised name would help?

I think it depends on how much time and energy you want to devote to either stand out or fit in. For example, is it really worth the effort to get a barista to spell your name right on a cup, while you are late for class and the line is out the door? I guess some would say yes, but in my case, I use my Starbucks name, my super secret alter ego – AJ. I don’t know where the “J” in AJ came from, I picked it once and stuck to it. At that instant, it is not about heritage or diversity, it is about convenience. So much so, that even my very white partner has started to use it instead of her own name. It is just easier and saves the grief of seeing your name misspelled.

Then come the formal settings. I am extremely conscious when meeting new people, especially at conferences, as most of the first interaction is spent repeating my name. How can I meet the big people in my field at a conference and make a good first impression when they can’t even say my name right? I don’t know how to tackle this.

I hope my own experiences with inclusion and diversity helps me create environments in my class that are welcoming to everyone. I want to create an environment where students are not forced to fit in and feel included either way. They have the choice of being Anurag or AJ and the atmosphere of mutual respect encourages them to participate wholeheartedly. I like to think of my classroom as a crate of eggs, where eggs of all color fit in and are free to interact in a welcoming environment shielded from, mindful of, and learning from the world outside.

Commoditizing Diversity

It’s regrettable, I think that when science discusses cultural or ethnic diversity in our society, that it does so through the lens of “value”. What is diversity worth to us?  The question rarely seems to be what does diversity do for us as humans or how can it enrich our lives? How can it make us better people more fully aware of ourselves and our place in this world? But rather, science tends to be co-opted into asking how much can diversity produce? What is its economic value?  How can someone (or some corporation) leverage diversity for its benefit?

We have a sickness in our society and the root cause isn’t racism or sexism or any other -ism. These things are the symptoms of the trouble. Instead, the trouble lies in our collective norms that allow these types of things — things that we cannot accept as inherent in ourselves — to be placed onto others.  Psychology might call this behavior negative projection.  Sociology may call it otherization.  Whatever name it goes by in your area of interest, it does seem to be something that is here to stay as a part of the human psyche — something that the wisdom of religious and philosophical thinkers have been warning us about for thousands of years:


A Contemporary Summary of the Sermon on the Mount


The fact that, as a society, we tend to find trouble with racism and sexism (to name only two) is a profound reflection on the values that we tacitly normalize and promote — the things that are hard to understand that we’re engaging in because most everyone else does also.  In the desert, every mound of sand looks the same.


Why Fit in If We Were Born to Stand Out?*

Diversity is everywhere, no matter where you go. That’s the amazing thing of this world! Don’t you think? I had not had the opportunity to be around a lot of people from different countries, cultures, ethnicities, languages, abilities, backgrounds, beliefs, religious, etc., “on a daily basis” until I came to Virginia Tech. This was a completely new experience for me!

As Katherine Phillips discusses in her article, it is really powerful when people with such diversity work together. It is not only the background what makes a big difference, there are the experiences and philosophies what bring to the table different perspectives and information.

I love being different and I do not want to appear something that I am not just to fit in a place or a culture. However, sometimes I feel that everyone is looking at me just because I do not look like a typical American student. Sometimes, even I do not feel comfortable speaking because I know that my English is not good enough. This, sometimes, may affect students’ performance. There are several questions that come to my mind. Do the professors really care about diversity in the classroom?

I am taking a course this semester in which the professor, at the beginning of the class, posts trivial questions to engage students. We use i-clicker to answer those questions. From my point of view, this does not engage students at all or at least it does not work for me. I do not know any of those answers because all of these are related to movies/series of the United States. There are more than 150 students in that class and I would dare to say that there is a lot of diversity in that classroom. Could not he be more inclusive?

So, my questions for you are:

Are you promoting an inclusive environment in the classroom? If not, how can you do it? And, are you taking advantage of all the benefits that diversity groups may have on students’ creativity, work, and interpersonal interaction?

It is time for an inclusive teaching and learning!

*Quote taken from Dr. Seuss

White Lab Coats. Seriously?


I’ve never donned a white coat in my laboratory.

Some days I’ll wear laser safety goggles.

Some days a t-shirt and pants will do.

On others, a slightly nicer collared-shirt is in.

Maybe even work clothes.

And on rare occasions, a wetsuit.

But never a white coat.



For some people, science is wearing a white lab coat. But that’s not how I do it.

Its surprising, I think, that some people assume that’s what scientist do — hide behind lab coats:

“… I propose giving a name to a new kind of theory of learning which will reflect the fact that human experience gives all of us a vaster store of knowledge about learning than has been accumulated by all white-coated academics in their laboratories. ”   — Seymour Papert

Oh, please, Seymour…

Scientists gain and develop knowledge through experience – it’s no different for us than anyone else. And we gain experience by experiencing. There’s no short cut.

Year after year I’m amazed at the wide array of skills that are required to place myself in the path of new experiences. This is a point that I like to make very clear to my students. If they are to become engineers: the good jobs, the interesting jobs, the jobs worth having require far more skills than can be taught during the undergraduate experience. Each student need to develop a mindset that allows them to set aside experince limiting attachments.  In that way, the course of their lives — what’s needed in the moment — can be the best teacher they’ll ever have.

One of the ways I convey this in my Introduction to Engineering course is by coming to lecture dressed exactly as my day requires me to be dressed. Some days this is a suit and tie, while others… well you saw the list above.

I’ve learned never to directly address why I come to class dressed in such a wide variety of outfits. I just come, deliver the lecture and carry on as normal. The lesson that is planned is secret. It only unfolds when the time is right. And experience has shown that I don’t have to wait long before one of the more boisterous students unwittingly calls for it:

“Some days you come dressed in tattered jeans and a t-shirt, and now you’re wearing a suit? What’s your deal? What do you do with your days?!”



Now I have their attention.


I could have lectured /at them/ for weeks on the types of skills needed to be a successful engineer. But with this one question – and a well timed answer – I can convey the depth and breadth of the work covered by the term “engineering” or “research scientist”… at least as it pertains to me. 

And isn’t that the point?

I’m barely an expert at what I do. How can I genuinely represent myself as an expert on what it takes to be successful for other people?  In other fields? In different times, places, cultures?

I can’t.

All I can do is be to genuine with myself and with my students. That’s the best, most authentic version of my teaching — sharing my experiences with my students  so they can learn from them. If it were anything else, they could get it from a book.  

And perhaps some of the things I have to say about my experiences as a researcher don’t apply to them? But that’s OK too.  The lesson for these students is that I’m teaching how I learn from my experiences — by example.

Every day is different. What’s required of each and every one of us if we are to be successful– no matter your background or discipline  —  is a detachment from what we thought we knew the day before; detachment from the things we *want* to be true.

I’d really like science to just require a white lab coat. But it doesn’t. It requires a great deal more. And that’s one of the best lessons I can hope to leave my students with: the cost (and rewards) of dedication.



What is your Signature?

I studied at a teaching-oriented high school. At that time, when I was in my last two years, I had to teach at elementary schools. This opportunity helped me to start developing my teaching skills, especially those related to creativity because it is really hard to have the attention of children around 6 – 10 years old. I ended up doing a lot of games as a way of teaching them. I realized that they really enjoyed that time because the class was something different to their daily routine.

Since that time, I always ask myself,

How do I want students to remember me? What is the impact that I want to have on them? How would you answer these questions?

I envision myself as a professor out of the box. During my years at school and university (my whole life), I have realized what I like and what I do not like when I am taking a class. This really helps me to envision the professor that I want to be.

First, I want to be a very creative/innovative professor. As mention by Prof. Shelli Fowler “The average attention span of people age 18-35 is close to 15 minutes”. That’s why I really care about spending a lot of time finding new techniques or ways to engage students in the class and to explain the topics. I do not want they feel boring in the class.

I am always looking for caught the attention of the students, even when I have to do a presentation, I always want to catch the attention of the attendees. For example, last semester I was a speaker at a conference where I was the only Ph.D. student. All the attendees were experts in the industry with more than 25 years of experience (most of them men). I was terrified and very intimidated by them because that was my first conference presentation since I came to VT. Plus, I had to talk for 1 hr and 15 minutes in a language that is not my naïve language. At that moment, I asked myself, where are the “normal” 20 minutes time for a conference?

I can tell you that I spent a lot of time working on my presentation. Maybe, this is something that most of students or professors usually do not do. I have been in classes where the professor has slides with text everywhere that I do not even have time to read it. If I try to do it, I will miss what the professor is saying (I can not do two things at the same time in English). They rather think if these are the better ways to communicate the concepts and examples. Just to give you an idea, the following picture was the first slide of my presentation (I am working with a concept called “phantom float”). That was a complete success, I had not even started and everyone was saying what an interesting way to start a presentation. Everyone was engaged from the beginning.

Second, I want to motivate and inspire students to be their own best selves. I truly believe that when you share your own experiences, you definitely have an impact on people’s lives. I want to be approachable. I want students to feel comfortable in the class so they really desire to go to the class instead of just going because they have to. I want to they enjoy the learning process! I am not the kind of person that can tell jokes in a classroom because I do not even understand the jokes in English but I can definitely find other ways to make the environment more enjoyable. For example, my advisor uses to play music before the class starts. Students can also select the music that they want to hear.

As well as our signature is unique, our teaching style and approach are too. So,

What is your signature?


A tale of two brothers: Inseparable at birth, separated by assessments

There were once two brothers, let’s call them Steve and Harry. They were born into a middle-class Indian family in 1989, separated by 5 minutes. It was a different world back then, exciting times. H.W. had just become President, Exxon Valdez was about to devastate the North Pacific and Alaskan Coastline with an oil spill, and the Berlin Wall was going to come crashing down later in the year, lifting the iron curtain over half of the world. When the brothers were 2 years old, the heavily regulated Indian economy was liberated from the socialist clutches of the Government, bringing unprecedented economic growth to the country. Indian middle-class was about to witness a radical change in the standards of living and the recent events had ensured that the brothers would receive the best possible education and a world of opportunity. All was well.

Steve and Harry went to the same schools, were in the same classes, had the same group of friends and were, in other words, inseparable. By middle school, it is clear that Steve is “better” than Harry, as he is always top of the class and has a near-photographic memory, perfect for memorizing everything and dumping it in the exams. Harry, on the other hand, is barely scraping by in school as he is “stubborn and doesn’t want to study”. Steve gets pampered and has access to everything, while Harry suffers in silence. No one knows that Harry has a genius for pattern recognition and numbers speak to him. He can see trends and relationships where others can’t, but he has nothing to show for it, except for his above-average math scores. Recognizing what Harry is good at, would be asking too much from assessments which assign arbitrary numbers to students based on how well they can memorize.

It is April of 2005. The brothers are now 16 and in the 10th grade. This year is extremely important and could “make or break their careers”, people around them can’t seem to stop reminding them. At the end of the school year, they will take the “Board Exams”, which are administered to millions of students by the central education board. The purpose of this is to sort the students based on their scores in at least 5 3-hour exams and limit their options for the last two years of schooling based on it. The top students can pick from any of the 3 streams – science, commerce, and humanities. Who are we kidding, this is India and if you make the mistake of being good at taking exams, you have to pick science, or your parents will pick it for you. Undergraduate degree eligibility will be limited based on this hierarchical system where students who picked science in high school can pursue any degree, while the peasants in humanities are limited to humanities degrees.

It is May of 2006. Steve and Harry, along with hundreds of thousands of others, await the results of the board exams. Steve, as expected aced the exams achieving 95%, while Harry barely scraped by with 62%. Their parents are elated for how well Steve did, and are worried about what Harry will do in life.

It is June of 2006. There is sort of mad rush to sign up for limited spots in science for 11th grade in most schools. The brothers’ parents are able to get Steve admitted to a top private school to study science and eventually pursue engineering. They have high expectations from Steve. But Steve doesn’t want to study science. He has a passion for English literature. He devours works of the likes of Hemingway, Eliot, Shaw and, Yeats. But he did so well in the board exams. How can his parents let him make the mistake of not picking science? Fights and arguments ensue. The parents win. Steve enrolls to study science. Harry has no choice but to study humanities. No reputable school will allow him to study science or commerce. But he wants to study math. He got a perfect score in math in the board exams. The schools don’t care. Their policy is to look at the percentage score and not individual subjects. Harry’s parents try and finally give up. Harry enrolls to study humanities. The brothers are separated for the first time in 10 years. They go to different schools, take different classes, have different friends. Both brothers are miserable, and the assessments have claimed two more victims.

It is August of 2008. Steve is about to join a private university to study computer engineering. He “wasted” too much time in the last two years reading novels and hasn’t done as well as his parents hoped. He can’t get into the top public universities in India, so an expensive private university is the only option. Harry is getting ready to move to the UK. He has an uncle who wants him to come and work in his restaurant and is willing to help him go to college in London. Harry is determined to find a way to study math. The past two years have been tough, but there is hope now that the brothers are moving out.

It is 2017. A lot has happened in the past 9 years. Harry is now running his uncle’s restaurant in West London, as uncle is ill and can no longer do it on his own. He enrolled in college but had to drop out as it was too expensive and he was in too much debt. He is doing a decent job managing the restaurant and makes enough to lead a mediocre life. His passion for math was long forgotten. Steve is furiously typing his way through a complex piece of python code. He is on a deadline and needs to deliver this module to his client in the US in a few hours. It is the middle of the night, he is in a dimly lit office, in a generic IT company in India. He hates his job, but it pays the bills. His passion for literature was long forgotten. One brother adds to the statistics of Indians who left the country in search of better lives, and the other adds to the statistics of Indians stuck in IT jobs with minimal growth.

There were once two brothers, inseparable at birth, separated by 5,000 miles. What if they were born in a different time, in a different place? What if the assessments were better suited to figure out what they were good at? What if someone had looked beyond their scores and encouraged them? What if there were no scores at all? What if….

Alright, if you are still reading, I will let you in on a secret: I made this story up. I used it as a means to channel my frustration and anger at the education system in India. The sad part is, India has 1.3 billion people and there probably are thousands of Steves and Harrys out there.

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